21 civilians dead as Syrian planes pound Idlib

Updated 29 May 2019

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This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on Tuesday shows significant damage to Habeet, a village on the edge of Idlib province, after a government offensive against the last rebel stronghold in Syria. —AP
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on Tuesday shows significant damage to Habeet, a village on the edge of Idlib province, after a government offensive against the last rebel stronghold in Syria. —AP

BEIRUT: At least 21 civilians were killed on Tuesday as Syria’s regime intensified its bombardment of the last jihadist stronghold in the country’s northwest, a monitor said.

Nine children were among the 21 killed in government fire on several towns in Idlib province and the countryside of neighbouring Aleppo, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Strikes on a busy street in the village of Kafr Halab, on the western edge of Aleppo province, killed at least nine civilians.

A photographer said the bodies of the victims were torn apart and several stores lining the side of the road were destroyed.

The street was crowded with people out and about before breaking the daytime fast observed by Muslims during Ramazan.

A hospital in the Idlib town of Kafranbel was also hit by artillery shells, said David Swanson, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian office.

“The facility is reportedly out of service due to severe structural damage,” he said.

The hospital’s administrative director Majed al-Akraa confirmed the attack. “The hospital is completely out of service,” he said. “It was a strong attack. The generators and even my car caught fire,” he said.

It follows two days of intensified regime bombardment on the region that killed a total of 31 civilians on Sunday and Monday, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

Rescue volunteers and civilians were seen pulling dust-covered victims from the rubble of destroyed buildings in the wake of those strikes.

Idlib and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia are under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group led by Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate.

The region is supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by a September buffer zone deal, but the jihadist bastion has come under increasing bombardment by the regime and its ally Russia since late April.

Satellite images show crops on fire in rebel enclave

New satellite photos obtained on Tuesday show significant damage to Syrian villages and surrounding farmland as a result of a government offensive on the last rebel stronghold in the country.

The images, provided by the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies, show fires in olive groves and orchards during harvest season around Kfar Nabudah and nearby Habeet, two villages on the edge of Idlib province where the latest fighting has focused. The fires were apparently sparked by intense bombing in the area.

Fighting has raged in Idlib and surrounding areas since April 30 when Syrian troops began pushing into the enclave from the south while unleashing a wave of intense bombing over the overcrowded area. For President Bashar Assad, Idlib stands in the way of final victory against armed government opposition after eight years of civil war.

The satellite photos, which show the area over the past week, show destroyed buildings and a mosque in Kfar Nabudah, which appears surrounded by farm fields, some still burning. Most of the damaged fields appeared north of Kfar Nabudah. In Habeet, farms are pocked by craters, while others appear set on fire.

Kfar Nabudah fell under government control on Sunday. Activists, experts and Maxar say the crop burning is part of a “scorched earth” campaign that adds to the hardship of 3 million people in the rebel stronghold.

The UN said fires, triggered by bombings, destroyed staple crops such as wheat and barley, compounding the already fragile humanitarian conditions in the area.

On Tuesday, the Idlib health directorate said government rockets hit a hospital in the town of Kfar Nubul, causing extensive damage to the facility and to its generators and cars parked outside. The directorate said the hospital is currently not functioning.

In videos shot by the Syrian Civil Defence, known as White Helmets, fire fighters battle a raging fire in one of the hospital generators as a thick plume of smoke rises above.

This brings the total number of regional health facilities directly hit in the offensive to 21, including at least five which the UN had identified as medical centres.

Amnesty International has said that attacks on health facilities in opposition-held areas in Syria are part of a well-established pattern by government forces and their allies.

The White Helmets also reported that at least seven people were killed in sporadic bombings around the stronghold on Tuesday. Rescuers continued to search for two inhabitants of a building that was bombed a day earlier in Ariha village, struggling to remove the pulverised rubble from the narrow streets. At least 11 were killed in the bombing.

The UN said the violence has exacted a heavy toll on civilians, displacing more than 200,000 and targeting health facilities and schools. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said nearly 1.3 million residents of the enclave had already been displaced by violence in other parts of Syria.

“The potential longer-term impact on the civilian population may be compounded as the violence is occurring during the harvest season,” it said. “As the hot summer weather sets in, more fires can occur, further disrupting normal food production cycles and potentially reducing food security for months to come.”

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2019