Air strikes, shelling hit Idlib and Hama on day of Syria summit in Tehran: monitor

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Air strikes hit parts of Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province on Friday, a war monitor said, as the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Tehran to discuss the fate of the enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes targeted positions belonging to rebel groups in the northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces.

Around 3 million people live in the last major stronghold of active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, which comprises most of Idlib province and adjacent small parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing an assault to recover those rebel-held parts of the northwest, and resumed air strikes alongside Russia on Tuesday after weeks of lull.

On Friday evening, nine people were killed, mostly women and children, and 20 injured due to the sudden shelling of a Christian majority city in the north western countryside of Hama province, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency(SANA) said.

A small jihadist faction in Idlib claimed responsibility for the shelling of the government-controlled city of Meherdeh, according to the war monitor.

The Syrian army responded by shelling opposition-controlled Qalaat al-Madiq area in north western Hama, killing a child and a fighter, the SOHR said.

Earlier in the day, thousands of people in rebel-held Idlib took to the streets after Friday midday prayers to protest any upcoming military action or evacuation plans, the Observatory and opposition news channel Orient News said.

The Britain-based Observatory said strikes on Friday had destroyed a building used by the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group near the town of al-Habeet, resulting in a number of casualties.

Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front alliance, which formed earlier this year.

In addition to supporting rebels in Idlib, Turkey has also created a buffer zone along its border in an area north of Aleppo that adjoins Idlib, where it has set up a local administration alongside Syrian rebel groups.

Russia and Iran have said they want all militants to be pushed out of Idlib. The United Nations has warned that a military offensive in Idlib could cause a humanitarian catastrophe.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Catherine Evans and Dan Grebler