Reyhanli, Turkey – Turkish forces downed a fighter jet flown by Syrian government forces over southern Idlib on Tuesday as a strategic town in northwest Syria fell under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s military.
It was the third such shoot-down in three days after Turkey hit two other Syrian aircraft on Sunday.
“Turkish regime forces targeted one of our warplanes, which led to its fall in the northwest area of Maarat al-Numan,” Syrian state media reported.
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On Twitter, the Turkish defence ministry confirmed the news, saying “an L-39 plane belonging to the [Syrian] regime has been downed”.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces overnight took over the key city of Saraqeb, which lies at the junction of the M4 and M5 commercial highways that connect the country’s major cities.
Saraqeb has changed hands twice in the last month, but a dramatic escalation in fighting over the past few days saw armed opposition groups retreat to the villages of Nairab and Afis in the west, as Syrian government forces – under cover of Russian air power – secured the city.
Rashwan Abu Hamza, a field commander in Saraqeb belonging to one of the rebel groups, told Al Jazeera the battle against al-Assad’s forces intensified on Monday night.
“Regime forces began to advance into the city at 2am and an hour later entered the neighbourhoods and began combing them,” Abu Hamza said. “The shelling from Russian warplanes escalated and forced us to withdraw west of the city.”
At 4am (01:00 GMT) on Tuesday, Saraqeb was under the full control of the Syrian forces, he said, but added a counteroffensive was imminent.
‘Operation Spring Shield’
Since December, al-Assad’s forces intensified their offensive to take control of Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria where Turkey backs some opposition fighters.
The operation has resulted in the internal displacement of nearly one million Syrians, the majority fleeing to the Turkish border, and killed at least 300 civilians.
Under the 2018 Sochi agreement with Russia, which designated Idlib as a de-escalation zone, Turkey set up several observation points throughout the province, but incurred heavy losses as Syrian forces targeted its troops.