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Dozens killed in Syria air strikes, Syrian army attacks northwest

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Air strikes on two markets killed up to 50 people in northwest Syria on Tuesday, as Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power also launched strikes against rebels in the province of Latakia, a rebel group and a conflict monitor said.

Men inspect damaged motorcycles after an airstrike on a market in the town of Maarat al-Numan in the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province, Syria April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Targets included towns and villages where a partial truce agreement had brought about a lull in fighting between the government and rebels since Feb. 27. That agreement has unravelled in recent weeks.

In the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province, which neighbours Latakia, air strikes on a vegetable market in the town of Maarat al-Numan killed around 40 people and injured dozens, the monitor, rescue worker and opposition source said.

In the nearby town of Kafr Nubl between seven and 10 people were killed, the sources said.

The attacks represented a “dangerous escalation” of the five-year conflict, the main Syrian opposition bloc the High Negotiations Committee said in a statement. It had already postponed its participation in peace talks.

“We have more than 20 cars that have been moving dead and injured to hospitals in the area,” said Ahmad Sheikho, a member of the civil defence corps, a rescue service operating in opposition-held territory.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors the conflict through a network of sources on the ground, said 37 people were killed in Maarat al-Numan and seven were killed in Kafr Nubl.

The Syrian military could not immediately be reached for comment, and state news agency SANA made no mention of air strikes in Idlib.

Rockets fired by insurgents, meanwhile, killed three children in nearby Kefraya, a Shi’ite town loyal to the government, the Observatory said. State media said the dead were members of one family.

The fighting in Latakia was focussed on areas where insurgent groups had launched an attack on government forces on Monday, and where battles had often erupted despite the cessation of hostilities agreement.

“The regime is trying to storm the area, with the participation of Russian helicopters and Sukhoi (warplanes),” said Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal rebel group in the area. The Observatory said fighting had been raging since morning.

A Syrian military source said: “There have been a number of offensives and attacks by armed groups on the Syrian Arab army in (areas of northern Latakia) on military positions where the Syrian Arab army has been since before the cessation of hostilities agreement. The Syrian Army has responded to these attacks.”

Government air strikes and barrel bombing was also reported in northern areas of Homs province that are under rebel control. The use of barrel bombs, or oil drums filled with explosives, has been denied by the Syrian government but widely recorded including by a U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria.

The Observatory said around 15 air strikes also hit northern areas of Homs province on Tuesday.

Writing by Tom Perry; Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Alison Williams