Syrian army shells kill dozen despite Idlib truce: monitor, rescuers

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian army shells killed more than 10 people on Tuesday in the last rebel pocket in northwest Syria, where a Russian-Turkish truce was agreed in September, rescue workers and a war monitor said.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the army had carried out operations responding to “terrorist violations” of the truce in the southern part of the enclave, targeting insurgent fortifications.

Tuesday’s death toll is the highest in the northwest for months, according to the “White Helmets” rescue service that operates in rebel territory, and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group.

A jihadist takeover of much of Idlib and adjacent parts of northwestern Syria this month has raised questions over the truce agreed between President Bashar al-Assad’s ally Russia and Turkey, which backs some insurgent factions.

Clashes, including shelling, have continued around the frontlines for most of the period since the deal was agreed, but neither side has attempted to capture new territory.

The agreement, reached in the Russian city of Sochi in September, averted an expected Syrian army offensive on the northwest which aid agencies warned would precipitate a massive humanitarian crisis.

Turkey, which maintains a string of army observation posts along the northwest front lines, has sought to avoid a new surge of refugees into its own territory.

The Idlib agreement required rebel factions to pull heavy weapons from a buffer zone along the front lines, and jihadists to withdraw from it altogether.

However, the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham alliance this month launched a series of assaults on Turkey-backed rebels in the region. A Kremlin spokesman was quoted this week saying the deal had not been fully implemented.

Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria.

Tuesday’s shells struck the town of Maarat al-Numan, killing 12 civilians and injuring 25, as well as other towns and villages in the southern part of the enclave, the White Helmets said. Two children were among 11 dead, the Observatory said.

Reporting By Khalil Ashawi and Angus McDowall; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Robin Pomeroy