Syrian airstrikes in Idlib leave at least 21 dead despite ceasefire

Children and rescue workers among those killed after market and industrial zone hit

At least 21 civilians have been killed in airstrikes in Idlib amid a continuing offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, despite a supposed ceasefire in Syria’s last opposition-held province.

The strikes, carried out by the Syrian air force and its Russian allies, hit a market and industrial zone in Idlib city in a ferocious attack on Wednesday that destroyed several buildings and set cars on fire, leaving the torched corpses of motorists trapped inside.

Footage from the scene showed houses on the same street levelled as rescue workers struggled to free those trapped under the rubble.

Children and rescue workers were among the dead, the UK-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

Idlib province, on the Turkish border in north-west Syria, has been increasingly targeted by bombing in recent weeks after several failed or still-born ceasefires brokered by Russia and Turkey over the past 18 months.

The latest agreement to halt air and ground attacks was supposed to go into effect on 12 January but never materialised. Artillery shelling and rocket fire continued without pause before Wednesday’s aerial attacks.

Government forces are now just 7km from the major rebel town of Maaret al-Numan after heavy clashes on Wednesday night that killed at least 26 rebel fighters, mostly from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaida offshoot that has become the dominant militant group in Idlib.

At least 29 government troops and allied militia fighters were also killed in the fighting, the SOHR said.

The Syrian state news agency SANA later reported that at least four civilians were killed by rocket fire on the government-held city of Aleppo.

The government attacks have focused on the area around the strategic M5 highway, which Assad is determined to capture in order to reopen the route linking the capital, Damascus, with Aleppo, the former financial centre.

Idlib’s population has grown from 1 million people in 2011 to approximately 3 million, swollen by waves of Syrians from areas retaken by Assad in the course of the nine-year war. There is nowhere safe left for them to go unless Turkey reopens its border to refugees.

“We live here without knowing if there is really a truce or if it’s just in the media. On the ground, there is no truce. People are afraid, the markets are empty,” Sari Bitar, a 32-year-old engineer living in Idlib city told Agence France-Presse on Thursday.

“The only problem is that there is nowhere to go,” Bitar said. “Syria is now limited to this geographical area, which is getting smaller day by day.”

According to the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, almost 350,000 people have fled their homes since December, bringing the total number of displaced people in the past nine months to nearly 750,000.

An additional 650,000 people, the majority of them women and children, could be forced to flee their homes if the violence continues, the International Rescue Committee warned in a statement on Thursday.

Most have left the southern edges of the territory under heavy attack, leaving entire towns and villages empty of people.

The displaced have moved northwards, where thousands of people are now camped out in freezing and wet winter conditions with inadequate shelter, food or medicine on the Turkish border.

At least 68 medical facilities have been bombed since the new government offensive began in April last year, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, as well as schools and crowded marketplaces.

The tide of Syria’s long war turned in Assad’s favour in 2015, when Russia intervened in the conflict on Damascus’ behalf. Since then, the government has clawed back territory from rebels with aerial bombardment and a series of sieges.

The president has repeatedly pledged that his forces will retake every inch of the country.


Bethan McKernan Middle East correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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