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Russian, Syrian jets pound Idlib after Tehran summit failure

Updated September 09, 2018

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Khan Sheikhun (Idlib, Syria): Smoke billows following Syrian government forces’ bombardment around the town on Saturday.—AFP
Khan Sheikhun (Idlib, Syria): Smoke billows following Syrian government forces’ bombardment around the town on Saturday.—AFP

AMMAN: Russian and Syrian warplanes pounded towns in Syria’s opposition-held Idlib province on Saturday, a day after a summit of the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia failed to agree on a ceasefire that would forestall a Russian-backed offensive.

Idlib is Syria’s last major stronghold of active opposition to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

At least a dozen air strikes hit a string of villages and towns in southern Idlib and the town of Latamneh and Kafr Zeita in northern Hama where rebels are still in control, witnesses and rescuers said.

Syrian helicopters dropped so-called barrel bombs — containers filled with explosive material — on homes on the outskirts of the city of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib, two residents said.

The Syrian army denies using barrel bombs. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented their use by the army.

The Western-sponsored Syrian Civil Defence rescue service known as the White Helmets said they pulled four bodies, including a child, from the rubble of a building bombed by Russian planes in the village of Abdeen, near Khan Sheikhoun.

A hospital in the town of Hass was put out of service after it was bombed, a rescue worker said.

Idlib’s two main rebel coalitions, the mainstream nationalist National Liberation Front, and a jihadist grouping known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, spearhead by a former Al Qaeda offshoot, say they were putting aside ideological differences to face a common threat.

Rebels say the battle could be decisive and a defeat may bring the end of their over seven-year, armed rebellion against Assad.

“There is coordination and cooperation with all the fighting factions to defend our people,” Emad al Din Mojahed, spokesman for Hayat Tahrir al Sham, told Reuters.

Friday’s summit had focused on a looming military operation in Idlib. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan pushed for a ceasefire during the summit but Russian President Vladimir Putin said a truce would be pointless as it would not involve Islamist militant groups Assad and his allies deem as terrorists.

Tehran and Moscow have helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to Islamist militants, while Turkey is a leading opposition supporter and has troops in the country.

The United Nations fears a full-scale offensive could cause a humanitarian catastrophe involving tens of thousands of civilians.

Tens of thousands of Syrians living in rebel-held towns in Idlib took to the streets on Friday to protest the impending campaign vowing they would never accept Assad’s rule and would resist any offensive to retake opposition areas.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2018