Al Qaeda-linked Syria Islamists enter government-held Idlib

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda entered Idlib in northern Syria on Monday and opened up a new front in a city that has been controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for more than a year, both sides said.

State television said the Nusra Front militants infiltrated Idlib at dawn and were confronted by troops and pro-government militias. The Nusra Front said its fighters killed dozens, including officers, in the attack and seized buildings.

In 2012, other rebel groups, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, briefly took control of parts of Idlib but were pushed out by the army.

Assad, fighting an array of insurgent groups, has lost much of north and east Syria but has secured a stretch of land from the capital Damascus in the southwest up toward Aleppo in the northwest.

In the past three months, the Nusra Front has made gains in these areas, in the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, and now in northwest Idlib province.

Referring to Monday’s fighting, the Nusra Front said on its social media account that its forces cut the supply route to Idlib city as well as seizing the governorate building. They also seized two tanks and captured 12 soldiers.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria, said the insurgents were pushed out of the governorate building and a captured police station later on Monday.

Syria is now beset by multiple conflicts since an uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011 which transformed into a civil war after a crackdown by security services.

A U.S.-led coalition is bombing Islamic State, a splinter al Qaeda group that has fought both Assad, the Nusra Front, Syrian Kurds and Sunni tribes.

The Observatory said the Syrian air force had carried out 600 air strikes, including barrel bomb drops from helicopters, during the past week.

About 180 civilians, including more than 50 children, were killed in the attacks, it said.

Reporting by Oliver Holmes; Edting by Angus MacSwan and Dominic Evans