Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Syrian government forces captured the key opposition stronghold of Maaret al-Numan near Idlib Wednesday, giving President Bashar al-Assad's troops an important passage from Damascus to Aleppo.
Thousands had left the city after months of bombings, and Maaret al-Numan was seen as a breeding ground for anti-government protests before the attacks.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces attacked Maaret al-Numan on three sides under the protection of intensive aerial bombardment. The organization said its activists documented 137 opposition fighters dead since the offensive started last week. The fighting also killed more than 100 regime soldiers and supporters.
Syria's General Command of the Army and Armed Forces said it had liberated the city and numerous other small villages and towns along the Idlib countryside "from terrorism." Officials said Syria's Army "continues to carry out its constitutional, national and ethical duties in pursuing what is left of armed terrorist organizations till clearing all the Syrian territories from terrorism."
"There is no going back to Maarat al-Numan this time," city council head Bilal Zikra said. "The regime fully besieged the city after I left. There are no people left in the city at all; the regime has spared no shells, rockets or any kind of weapon in targeting it."
Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has taken in scores of Syrian refugees, said Wednesday the battles violate agreements it negotiated with Russia and warned that Turkey's military may now get involved.
"Unfortunately, Russia hasn't abided by either the Astana or Sochi agreements," Erdogan said. "We have waited until now, but from this point, we are going to take our own actions. This is not at threat, but our expectation is that Russia will give the regime the necessary warning."