Three major opposition factions in Syria joined the fighting in Hama province on Thursday amid claims that air strikes had killed civilians as they fled the front lines.
Ahrar al-Sham, the Levantine Legion and Ajnad al-Sham all said that they were joining ongoing battles against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad around western Hama province.
The announcement came after a night of heavy bombing killed at least 17 people in rebel-held towns in the province, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
As fighting escalated around strategic towns in Hama, rebel sources told Al Jazeera that a truck carrying civilians fleeing raids on the rebel-held town of Souran was hit on Thursday morning, killing six.
However, the al-Manar news website, which is considered to be close to Assad, said government air forces were targeting “groups of militants” around the town, but gave no details of casualties.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said on Wednesday that strikes in northern Hama had killed “50 terrorists” and injured more than 70 more. The report claimed that Mohammed al-Ashqar, a leader of the Jaish al-Ezza faction, was among those killed.
Jaish al-Ezza, which formerly received US backing, has made territorial gains in Hama this week, seizing the town of Halfaya.
A group commander, Abu Kinan, told Reuters his fighters had begun “cleansing” the town, which is close to a main road linking coastal areas with the key Aleppo-Damascus highway as well as historic Christian towns.
A rebel offensive launched in the area on Tuesday threatens Assad loyalist areas, populated by Christians and Alawites, just east of the coastal mountains that are the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect.