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Mar 31, 6:31 AM EDT

Activists: Syria attacks militant-held Idlib, killing 14


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Activists: Syria attacks militant-held Idlib, killing 14

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BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces fired surface-to-surface missiles and conducted airstrikes on the northwestern city of Idlib days after it was seized by Islamic militants, killing more than a dozen people, activists said Tuesday.

State media said "tens" of fighters were killed in a "military operation" in Idlib, and a pro-government newspaper said the army is preparing to retake the city, adding that government forces will "soon" broadcast a statement announcing its re-capture.

Islamic fighters led by al-Qaida's branch in Syria and the ultra-conservative Ahrar al-Sham group seized control of Idlib on Saturday after four days of intense shelling and fighting. Its capture was a major blow to President Bashar Assad's government, which has retained control of almost all the country's major urban areas through four years of unrest.

Idlib, with a population of around 165,000 people, became the second provincial capital to fall to the opposition after Raqqa, which is now a stronghold of the Islamic State group. Its capture underscores the growing power of extremist groups in Syria, which now control about half the country.

Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, said he was "gravely concerned by the ongoing fighting" in Idlib, which he said has displaced some 30,000 people.

He said the situation in the city is becoming increasingly dire, with electricity shortages and the closure of schools and hospitals.

His comments came as activists and residents who fled the city said fighters were searching for government supporters, many of whom fled as the militants moved in.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said Monday night strikes on Idlib killed at least 14 people.

State news agency SANA said "tens" of "terrorist groups' members" were killed overnight and at dawn Tuesday during "successful" military operations in Idlib. The government refers to the entire armed opposition as "terrorists."

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