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A Turkey-backed Syrian fighter fires a truck-mounted gun toward the town of Saraqeb. Image Credit: AFP

Beirut: Turkey-backed Syrian rebels on Thursday retook a strategic northwestern town in Syria that was recently captured by government forces, and cut the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.

The retaking of Saraqeb which sits on the highway is a setback for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces who have scored major gains in a weeks long Russian-backed campaign in the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province. Officials had hailed the reopening of the motorway, known as the M5, as a major victory in the nine-year conflict.

The government’s military campaign to recapture Idlib, the last opposition-held stronghold in the country, has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and the war’s largest single wave of displacement. According to the U.N. almost 950,000 civilians have been displaced since early Decembers, and more than 300 have been killed. Most have fled further north to safer areas near the Turkish border, overwhelming camps already crowded with refugees in cold winter weather.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, said the opposition fighters seized the town of Saraqeb after intense bombardment by Turkish troops. Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in Syria’s brutal civil war, with Ankara backing the opposition and Moscow backing Assad.

The Observatory said more than 60 fighters were killed on both sides since Wednesday, adding that later on Thursday, government forces launched a counteroffensive under the cover of Russian air strikes to try retake the town.