Assad says army to reinforce besieged troops in northwest Syria

BEIRUT, May 6 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Wednesday that troops would head to an insurgent-held town to help besieged soldiers holed up on its outskirts and said army setbacks were part of normal warfare.

Last month Islamist insurgents including al Qaeda's wing in Syria, Nusra Front, captured the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Syria's Idlib province, edging closer to the government-held heartland of Latakia along the coast.

"And now, God willing, the army will arrive soon to these heroes who are besieged in the Jisr al-Shughour Hospital to continue the battle to defeat the terrorists," he said in comment broadcast on Syrian state television.

He was speaking at a school in an undisclosed location at an event to commemorate Syria's Martyrs' Day. In the rare public appearance, he was surrounded by throngs of people chanting in support. Security officials held back surging crowds.

In his first remarks since the insurgents seized Jisr al-Shughour, and the city of Idlib at the end of March, Assad played down such setbacks, saying to-and-fro gains were normal in any war, adding the armed forces would remain resolute.

"Psychological defeat is the final defeat and we are not worried," he said.

Assad said while the army was waging a relentless war across swathes of territory and gaining ground, there were occasions when the fighters had to "retreat back when the situation warrants".

Battles have been raging around the hospital on the southwestern outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour, where army forces and allied fighters have been holed up since the insurgent offensive began, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Government forces have endured a series of setbacks on the battlefield and Islamist fighters have edged closer to Assad's stronghold in the coastal areas.

Fighting continued on Wednesday between government forces and Islamist fighters in government-held Latakia, the heartland of Assad's minority Alawite community.

Syrian state media said the army made advances in the northern countryside of Latakia and killed many Nusra fighters. (Reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Alison Williams)

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