Russian jets step up raids on rebel-held Idlib and rural Aleppo

Civil defence members work at a site hit at night by an airstrike in Saraqeb, in rebel-held Idlib province, Syria December 11, 2016. Picture taken December 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

AMMAN (Reuters) - Russian jets stepped up strikes on several towns in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province and rural Aleppo two days after the evacuation of rebels from their last pocket in the northern city of Aleppo, rebels and residents said on Saturday.

They said at least eight strikes targeted Binish, Saraqeb and Jisr al Shaqour - main towns in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. There were reports of several casualties, mainly among civilians.

Idlib province for months has been a target of Russia’s heavy bombing campaign against rebel-held areas. It came even while the former eastern part of Aleppo under insurgent control faced an escalation in aerial raids and shelling until its defenses collapsed and the rebels were forced to agree to an evacuation deal.

The Syrian army has hinted the next major campaign after its victory in Aleppo was to rout insurgents in their stronghold of Idlib province, where mainly Islamist brigades operating under a coalition known as Jaish al Fateh are in control.

Residents and rebels said Russian and Syrian jets also staged heavy strikes on rebel-held parts of western and southern parts of rural Aleppo for the second day since the last rebels left their remaining pocket of territory in Aleppo city.

They raided the town of Khan al Asal, about 14 km (9 miles) west of Aleppo, with cluster bombs while several strikes hit Hreitan and Andan, according to a rebel fighter from Jaish al Mujahdeen. The nearby town of Atareb was also hit.

Although the Syrian army, with the help of Iranian-backed militias, was able to take full control of Aleppo city after Russia conducted hundreds of raids that pulverized rebel-held parts, large swathes of western and southern Aleppo countryside remain in rebel hands.

Rebels said they repelled an Iranian-backed militia assault on Saturday to gain ground in the Rashideen area, west of Aleppo city.

The Syrian army continued to comb areas in eastern Aleppo that fell under its control on Thursday. The Lebanese Hizbollah- run military news service said weapons caches left by insurgents exploded, causing two deaths and wounding scores.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Dan Grebler