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Syrian government forces quit town linking Aleppo to south: monitor

Demonstrators hold opposition flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, after Friday prayers in Binsh near Idlib November 2, 2012. Banner reads "The Syrian people are one". REUTERS/Muhammad Najdet Qadour/Shaam News Network/Handout

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have withdrawn from their last base near the northern town of Saraqeb, further weakening his ability to fight rebels in the country’s largest city Aleppo, a violence monitoring group said on Friday.

Saraqeb straddles the junction of two main highways leading to Aleppo and the pullout will make it harder for government forces to reinforce or resupply Aleppo, where they have been battling with rebels for control since late July.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops had retreated from Alwees, northwest of Saraqeb, leaving the town and surrounding areas “completely outside the control of regime forces”.

Saraqeb, 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Aleppo, lies at the meeting point of Syria’s main north-south highway, linking Aleppo with Damascus, and another road connecting Aleppo to the Mediterranean port of Latakia.

With areas of rural Aleppo and northern border crossings to Turkey now under rebel control after 19 months of conflict, the loss of Saraqeb would leave Aleppo city further isolated from Assad’s southern strongholds.

Any convoys using the highways from Damascus or the Mediterranean would be vulnerable to rebel attack. This would force the army to use smaller rural roads or send supplies on a dangerous road from Al-Raqqa in the east, according to the Observatory’s director, Rami Abdelrahman.

The Observatory said on Thursday that rebels had seized three military positions around Saraqeb, killing at least 28 soldiers - at least eight of them in cold blood, according to Internet video footage.

It was not immediately possible to verify Wednesday’s reported army withdrawal. Authorities restrict journalists’ access in Syria and state media made no reference to Saraqeb.

Reporting by Dominic Evans; editing by Mark Heinrich