Syrian troops have regained control over the city of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province, a Syrian military source has said.
"The Army units began to strengthen their positions in Maarat al-Numan. At the same time, the Syrian Army's engineering troops began to de-mine the area," the source said.
A Sputnik photojournalist embedded with Syrian troops confirmed the information.
Located at the junction of the Hama-Aleppo highway, and linking Syria's two largest cities Damascus and Aleppo, Maarat al-Numan has been a stronghold of terrorist militants since 2012, with 'moderate' militia forces duking it out with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham* extremists after driving back government forces in the early stages of the conflict.
The city, thought to be mostly deserted at present, was encircled by Syrian Army forces on Monday during the ongoing offensive in the area.
On Monday, the Russian Defence Ministry warned that it had intelligence that Idlib militants and the remnants of the notorious White Helmets group were planning provocations in Syria, including a possible false flag 'chemical weapons attack' aimed at provoking a foreign intervention amid the militants' increasingly hopeless strategic situation.
Last week, the Russian Defence Ministry's Centre for Syrian Reconciliation reported that 40 Syrian Army servicemen were killed, with 80 more wounded after militants attacked their positions in the Idlib de-escalation zone. 50 jihadists were also reported killed during that attack.
The Syrian Army began an operation in southeast Idlib to clear the area of terrorists on December 19. By December 24, 40 villages were liberated by government troops. A new ceasefire regime was introduced in the area earlier this month following negotiations between Turkey and Russia. However, militants repeatedly broke the ceasefire and attacked government troops and civilians, prompting the Army to retaliate.
On Tuesday, Turkey's Defence Ministry warned that its forces would retaliate "in the strongest way, without hesitation," if its 'observation posts' in Idlib province were attacked by Syrian troops during their operation.
Syria has faced a devastating civil conflict since 2011, with government forces fighting a broad array of foreign-backed militants and terrorists, including al-Qaeda* and Daesh (ISIS).* The conflict has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the collapse of Syria's economy, and to the internal and foreign displacement of millions of Syrians. With the majority of the country cleared of terrorists by late 2017, the government began the reconstruction effort, although this has been hampered by the Trump administration's efforts to loot the country's oil rich eastern provinces.
* Terrorist groups outlawed in Russia and many other countries.