BEIRUT: Warplanes struck a town in a rebel-held enclave in northwestern Syria, killing at least 10 people, including some who were fleeing the attack, opposition activists and a rescue service said Thursday. The attack, believed to have been carried out by Russian warplanes backing a Syrian government offensive, also put a local hospital out of service, they said.
The late Wednesday night assault on Ariha, a town in Idlib province, comes as the rebel-held enclave is under intense fire amid Syrian government advances on the area that had been controlled by the opposition for nearly eight years.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll from the airstrikes was at least 10 civilians. The rescue Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, said 11 people, including a child, were killed when the Russian warplanes hit a road used by displaced people trying to leave Ariha. Both the Observatory and the White Helmets said a local hospital and a bakery were struck.
The Ariha hospital, known as al-Shami, was no longer functional, the Observatory said. At least 24 people were wounded, including a doctor, a White Helmet volunteer, three women and two children, the rescuers said.
The U.N. Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock described to the Security Council on Wednesday the dire conditions in the rebel-held areas. At least 20,000 people were displaced in the last two days, he said, adding that 115,000 left their homes in the past week, bringing total of those uprooted by the violence since December to 390,000.
“Many families are moving multiple times. They arrive in a place thought to be safe, only for the bombs to follow, so they are forced to move again,” he said. “This cycle is all too familiar in northwest Syria.”
In the Russian-backed offensive, Syrian troops captured Maaret al-Numan, one of the largest and most strategic rebel-held towns in Idlib province on Wednesday. The town, which had been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered critical to President Bashar Assad’s forces. It was mostly empty after intense bombardment in recent weeks.
The government offensive now appears to be eyeing Saraqeb, a town to the north, which if captured, would secure the government’s hold on the highway.
The fighting in Idlib has driven hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes, mainly toward the border with Turkey and other rebel-held areas.
The push to control the highway has angered Turkey, which backs the Syrian opposition and has deployed troops to observation points inside Idlib to monitor an earlier cease-fire negotiated with Russia. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Russia is not loyal to agreements over Idlib and added that he is in contact with the Russians to urge them to stop the bombing in Idlib “or our patience will run out.”
Farther north, government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria’s largest city.
Syria’s nearly nine-year conflict has killed close to half a million people and displaced half of the population, including more than 5 million who are now refugees, mostly in neighboring countries.
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