AFP/Near Maaret al-Numan, Syria
Syrian regime forces were poised Monday to enter Maaret al-Numan, a town of symbolic and strategic importance in the country's last major opposition bastion that is deserted after months of bombardment.
Maaret al-Numan is a strategic prize lying on the M5 highway linking Damascus to Syria's second city Aleppo, a main artery coveted by the regime.
It is also the second biggest city in the beleaguered northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-regime forces and home to some three million people -- half of them displaced by violence in other areas.
Damascus loyalists have since Friday seized around 18 towns and villages around the city, reaching its eastern outskirts, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday.
They have also cut a section of the M5 leading north from Maaret al-Numan to Idlib city, the Observatory and the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported.
Retaking full control of the highway is essential to the government's efforts to rekindle a moribund economy.
The fighting has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes, with hundreds of vehicles on Monday packing a road leading out of the flashpoint region under heavy bombardment.
"Maaret al-Numan is nearly besieged," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman, explaining that regime forces were now stationed south, east and north of the city.
Abdel Rahman said Damascus loyalists were now pushing from the west and northwest in a bid to tighten the noose around the opposition holdout.
An AFP correspondent in the region said regime forces were also trying to reach the city's southwestern edges to prevent rebels and jihadists from falling back.
Idlib and nearby areas of Aleppo and Latakia provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, led by members of the country's former Al-Qaeda franchise.
In recent months, the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad has chipped away territory under jihadist control in the four provinces, despite several ceasefire agreements.
Assad has repeatedly vowed to reassert control over the whole of Syria.
An AFP correspondent said Maaret al-Numan had become a ghost town, but the Observatory maintained that some civilians had remained in the area despite the escalation.
Fearing further regime advances, residents of several towns and villages located north of Maarat al-Numan, have started to flee, the Observatory and an AFP correspondent said.
Pick-up trucks carrying entire families from the town of Saraqib and the Jabal al-Zawiya region packed a road leading north towards the border with Turkey, said an AFP correspondent.
The vehicles were crammed with mattresses, clothes and household appliances, many belonging to families who had previously fled Maaret al-Numan.
Sitting in the front seat of a pick-up truck, Umm Hussein used a tissue paper to dab tears off her face, her watery blue eyes glistening from behind the car window.
"I have left behind my relatives and even my daughter... who is on the verge of giving birth" said the mother of seven from the Jabal al-Zawiya region, her voice breaking as she spoke.
"I don't know what's going to happen to them, I don't know what's going to happen to my daughter," she added, saying there weren't enough vehicles to get them out.
Despite the exodus, regime-ally Russia on Monday pounded areas around the key exit route, killing two civilians, the Observatory said.
Plumes of white smoke were visible to motorists trapped in the congestion on the highway, an AFP correspondent said.
"We are heading towards the unknown," said one elderly woman, three little children sitting beside her in a pick-up truck.
Maaret al-Numan was an early hub of support for what started as demonstrations against Assad's rule in 2011.
Assad's forces, which are also battling HTS jihadists in western Aleppo province, are backed on both fronts by Syrian and Russian air strikes.
Since December 1, some 358,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes in the Idlib region, most of them women and children, the United Nations says.
Some 38,000 of those fled violence between January 15 and 19 alone.
A ceasefire announced by Moscow earlier this month was supposed to protect Idlib from further attacks, but never took hold.
Aid agencies and relief groups have warned that further violence could fuel what may potentially become the largest wave of displacement seen during Syria's civil war.
"This latest escalation will only add to the humanitarian catastrophe that is already unfolding in Idlib," the International Rescue Committee's Misty Buswell said.
Syrian government forces now control around 70 percent of the country.