Jabhat al-Nusra seizes control of major Syrian government stronghold with rebel coalition

The city of Jisr al-Shughur lies on a strategic motorway from the capital to coast

Jihadists launched an offensive on Jisr al-Shughour earlier this week
Jihadists launched an offensive on Jisr al-Shughour earlier this week

Islamist rebels have reportedly overrun the last major government stronghold in a strategic Syrian province.

The capture of Jisr al-Shughour almost completes the coalition’s control of Idlib, after they gained control of its main city last month.

Government troops have reportedly fled the area after days of intense clashes, although the claims could not be independently confirmed.

The video below claims to show rebels' offensive on Jisr al-Shughour using mortar rounds and artillery.

Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is leading the so-called Jaysh al Fateh (Army of Conquest) alliance of various factions, which does not include Isis.

Opposition television station Orient News aired images claiming to be from inside Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday, showing rebel fighters milling around the main square, raising their black flags.

Other footage claimed to show rebel fighters from the 13th Division, part of the Free Syrian Army, in the city. They have fought Isis in the past but allied themselves with the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra.

A Twitter account affiliated with al-Nusra also posted photos claiming to be from the “liberated” city and other images showed what appeared to be bodies of government troops piled in the streets.

A picture posted on Twitter by Jabhat al-Nusra claims to show its fighters waving the group's flags as they tour the streets of Jisr al-Shughour on 25 April

Regime forces have reportedly fled the area after days of intense clashes, although reports from rebels could not be independently confirmed.

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 60 government soldiers had been killed and most of the town was under rebel control.

A video appeared to show civilians streaming out of Jisr al-Shughour, accompanied by government troops after an apparent surrender.

A photo claiming to show a banner picturing President Bashar al-Assad being destroyed after Islamists overran Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday

Activist Asaad Kanjo said most residents he had talked to were staying indoors, fearing government retaliation.

The battle for the city started on Wednesday and thousands of fighters are believed to have taken part in the offensive, which initially targeted military facilities and checkpoints outside its boundaries.

Fighting continued on Saturday as government checkpoints were attacked on plains to the south and air strikes by President Bashar al-Assad’s air force continued.

Syrian government media, quoting an unnamed military official, said troops engaged in fierce battles with the "armed terrorist groups" entering the town who they claimed had arrived from the Turkish border.

Rebels praying in the countryside on 20 March as they headed towards Jisr al-Shughour

The official claimed government forces redeployed to surrounding villages to avoid civilian casualties.

Jisr al-Shughour lies on a main motorway from the Syrian capital of Aleppo to the Mediterranean port of Latakia, giving militants increasing power to disrupt government supply lines to and from the coast.

Its position and history of opposition to the ruling Baath party has made the city a site of frequent conflict since the 1980s and it was targeted by Syrian forces at the start of the civil war.

The latest offensive, called the “Battle of Victory” by rebels, comes less than a month after the provincial capital, also called Idlib, fell to the opposition.

A photo posted online on 28 March claiming to show Islamists in the heart of Idlib

As well as Jabhat al-Nusra, the coalition includes groups known as Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, Liwa al-Haqq, Jaysh al-Sunna, Ajnad al-Sham, and Faylaq al-Sham.

The name of the coalition, the Army of Fatah, is a reference to the Muslim conquests that spread the faith through the Middle East starting in the seventh century.

Rebels have controlled much of the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012 and targeted Jisr al-Shughour after the government moved its staff and offices there earlier this month.

An estimated 220,000 people have died so far in the Syrian civil war, which has raged since the Arab Spring in 2011. At least a million more have been injured, eight million displaced inside Syria and four million people have fled abroad as refugees.

Additional reporting by AP

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