The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday that Syrian troopers and their allies were just three kilometers (1.8 miles) away from the town of Khan Sheikhun, after capturing five villages to its northwest overnight.
The government troops’ advance towards Khan Sheikhun will tighten the noose around the last remaining pocket of militant-held territory in neighboring Hama province, including the towns of Morek, Kafr Zeita and Latamneh, Presstv Reported.
Khan Sheikhun lies on a key highway coveted by government troops. The road runs through Idlib, connecting the capital Damascus with the strategic northern city of Aleppo.
Syrian government forces have been regaining control of further areas once held by militants in Idlib province.
On Wednesday, Syrian army troops and their allies succeeded to capture the villages of Kafr Ain, Khirbat al-Murshed, Mintar and Tal A'as following heavy clashes with members of the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham Takfiri terrorist group, formerly known as al-Nusra Front.
An unnamed Syrian military source said the counter-terrorism operations inflicted heavy losses upon the extremists.
Syrian Air Force warplane shot down in southern Idlib
Separately, the Syrian military confirmed that one of its jet fighters has been shot down in the skies over the southern flank of Idlib province.
An unnamed military source told Syria’s official news agency SANA that the warplane was targeting the positions of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in al- Tamana'ah town, when it was struck by an anti-aircraft missile fired by the extremists.
The source noted that the fate of the pilot remains unknown.
The Syrian army declared in a statement on August 5 the start of an offensive against foreign-backed militants in Idlib province, after Takfiris positioned in the de-escalation zone failed to honor a ceasefire and continued to target civilian neighborhoods.
“Even though the Syrian Arab Army declared a ceasefire in the de-escalation zone of Idlib on August 1, armed terrorist groups, backed by Turkey, refused to abide by the ceasefire and launched many attacks on civilians in surrounding areas,” SANA cited a statement released by the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces.
“The Turkish regime’s persistence in allowing its terrorist pawns in Idlib to carry out attacks proves that Ankara is maintaining its destructive approach and is ignoring its commitments as per the Sochi agreement. This has emboldened terrorists to fortify their positions, and led to the spread of the threat of terrorism across the Syrian territory,” the statement added.
The Syrian military’s statement came a day after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would launch a military operation in a Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria.
Under the Sochi agreement, all militants in the demilitarized zone that surrounds Idlib and also parts of the provinces of Aleppo and Hama were supposed to pull out heavy arms by October 17 last year, and Takfiri groups had to withdraw two days earlier.
The National Front for the Liberation of Syria is the main Turkish-backed militant alliance in Idlib region, but the Takfiri Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) terrorist group, which is a coalition of different factions of terror outfits largely composed of the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, holds a large part of the province and the zone.
The HTS, which is said to be in control of some 60 percent of Idlib, has yet to announce its stance on the buffer zone deal.