December 20, 2017 / 9:31 AM / a year ago

Strikes kill 19 in rebel village in Syria's Idlib: Observatory, rescue service

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Air strikes killed 19 people in a village in Syria’s rebel stronghold of Idlib overnight, a rescue service there and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday.

The strikes pounded Maar Shureen in the northwestern Idlib province and injured 25 other people, the Britain-based Observatory said. The dead included seven children, it said.

The war monitoring group added that Syrian government or Russian aircraft had struck the village. Russia’s Defence Ministry denied involvement, saying in a statement carried by RIA news agency that its jets had not flown in that area.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military, which says it only targets militants.

Idlib’s civil defense, a rescue service known as the White Helmets which operates in rebel territory, said on social media that fierce bombing killed 19 people overnight.

“There were two consecutive strikes...The second strike came shortly before rescue teams arrived,” Mustafa Youssef, who heads the Idlib civil defense, said.

The Damascus government lost Idlib after insurgents took over the provincial capital in 2015. It has since become the only province fully under opposition control, and the most populated insurgent-held part of Syria.

Hayat Tahrir al Sham, the Islamist alliance spearheaded by the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is the dominant rebel force in Idlib. This has raised fears among some civilians and other rebel factions that the province could come under attack and turn into a major battlefield.

Thousands of civilians and fighters have poured into Idlib in the past year, bussed out of towns and cities which Syrian troops seized with the help of Russia and Iran-backed militias.

Government forces and their allies stepped up air strikes against opposition towns in the Hama countryside and the southern part of Idlib, rebels said last week.

The province, bordering Turkey, is part of Russian-brokered de-escalation agreements that seek to shore up ceasefires in parts of western Syria.

Turkey, which had long backed some Syrian rebel factions, set up observation posts in Idlib in October under a deal with Russia and Iran to reduce fighting there.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said the military operation in Idlib was largely completed. The deployment was also seen partly aimed at containing Kurdish influence nearby in northern Syria.

Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Toby Chopra

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