Opposition fighters have withdrawn from a key town in Syria's Idlib province amid a government offensive to retake the country's last major rebel stronghold, local activists have said.
Suleiman Abdulqader, a local activist in southern Idlib, said the rebels withdrew from Khan Sheikhoun early on Tuesday after the town was "completely surrounded by government forces".
"They [rebels] moved towards the north and east for now in an attempt to prevent troops from advancing to new points," he said.
The withdrawal from Khan Sheikhoun, one of the northwestern province's largest towns that has been in rebel hands since 2014, comes after days of fierce fighting between rebel factions and Russia-backed forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad.
Local activist Ahmed Husseinat said the fighters who withdrew were from the Jaish al-Izza rebel faction and from the Turkish-backed al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front, NLF) - a loose coalition of armed groups considered part of the moderate opposition.
But a statement on Tuesday from the main group in the area, Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate, described the withdrawal as "a redeployment". HTS said its fighters withdrew to the southern part of Khan Sheikhoun from where they would continue to defend their territory.
Reports from activists also note that fighters have withdrawn from a string of towns and villages in northern Hama, a city bordering Idlib from the south.