Opposition forces withdrew from the northwest Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun on Tuesday after Syrian government forces invaded Idlib province, local observers said.
The town and province are the last stronghold for opposition forces in their fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian-led airstrikes in support of Assad targeted Idlib province in recent weeks, forcing some half a million people to flee the area.
“Khan Shaykhun has become completely surrounded by government forces and rebel fighters withdrew early on Tuesday,” local activist Suleiman Abdulqader told Al Jazeera. “They moved toward the north and east for now in an attempt to prevent troops from advancing to new points.”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist group backed by al-Qaida, joined opposition groups in their defense of Khan Shaykhun. The group said it redeployed its fights to south of the town, where it said it would continue the fight, The Guardian reported.
Opposition fighters have been in control of the town since 2014.
Activists said opposition fighters also have withdrawn from the area of Hama, south of Idlib.
The withdrawal comes hours after Turkish forces deployed to Idlib province, sending a convoy to an observation post in Morek. Turkey, which opposes Assad, said it won’t let the province fall to the regime because it would send refugees north to its borders.
Earlier in the month, the United States persuaded Turkey to stall its planned invasion of Syria and the two agreed “to discuss plans to coordinate establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria.”
The talks were a last-minute attempt to prevent Turkish troops from invading Syria and begin an offensive against pro-U.S. Kurdish troops there. About 1,000 U.S. troops are also stationed in Syria and could be placed in danger by a Turkish attack.