Civilians trapped among Syria’s jihadists in Idlib under threat of Assad’s airstrikes

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More than 90 civilians, including children, were killed in Syrian airstrikes on the rebel-held province of Idlib over the weekend.

Syrian and Russian forces dropped bombs on the southeastern city where 2.5 million civilians are under jihadist control. 

Their lives reamain under threat as President Bashar al-Assad continues to target Idlib, seen as one of the final acts of a war that has lasted seven years.

An explosion of unknown origin at a weapons depot in Idlib killed at least 12 civilians on Sunday, a war monitor said. 

On Sunday morning rescue workers used a bulldozer to remove rubble and extract trapped people. 

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, said the death toll could rise as dozens were still missing.

‘The explosion occurred in a weapons depot in a residential building in Sarmada,’ the head of the Britain based monitor said.

But the cause of the blast was ‘not yet clear’, Abdel Rahman added.

A rescue worker carried the motionless body of a small child from the wreckage to an ambulance, the AFP correspondent said.

Behind mounds of rubble, the facade of a building was scorched black, due to a fire after the blast.

A civil defence source said women and children were among the dead.

But rescue workers had pulled out ‘five people who were still alive’, the source said.

Most of Idlib is controlled by rebels and jihadists led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but the Islamic State group also has sleeper cells in the area.

The regime holds a small slither of southeastern Idlib. In recent months, a series of explosions and assassinations – mainly targeting rebel officials and fighters – have rocked the province.

While some attacks have been claimed by IS, most are the result of infighting since last year between various other groups.

In recent days, regime forces have ramped up their deadly bombardment of southern Idlib and sent reinforcements to nearby areas they control.

President Bashar al-Assad has warned that government forces intend to retake Idlib, after his Russia-backed regime regained control of swathes of rebel held territory elsewhere.

Around 2.5 million people live in the province, half of them displaced by fighting in other parts of the country.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s civil war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests. 

At least 53 civilians including 28 children were killed in fierce bombardment of Idlib on Friday. 

The war monitor said 41 civilians, including 25 children, were killed in the rebel town of Orum al-Kubra in Aleppo province while 12 civilians, three of them children, died in Idlib.

Late Friday the Observatory had given a combined toll of around 30 dead.

‘The toll rose after the discovery of new victims under the rubble and the death of some of those who had been wounded,’ Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Observatory said it was not clear if the Syrian regime or its Russian backers were responsible for the bombardment of Aleppo, but blamed the allies for pounding Idlib.

Abdel Rahman said Friday’s bombardment was the most intense since Idlib was declared a ‘de-escalation zone’ last year.

He said the death toll in rebel-held areas of Aleppo was the highest since the beginning of 2018.

Idlib contains the largest chunk of territory still in rebel hands, and President Bashar al-Assad has warned it will be his next target after seizing opposition bastions near Damascus and in the country’s south.

Rebels have lost swathes of the territory they once controlled in Syria to regime forces over the last few months, including three areas designated as ‘de-escalation zones’.

The Observatory said regime reinforcements, including troops and equipment, had been amassing around the southwestern part of Idlib for several days.

A full-fledged assault would be devastating for the estimated 2.5 million people living in Idlib, many of them rebels and civilians bussed out of other areas that came back under regime control. 

The United Nations appealed on Thursday for talks to avert ‘a civilian bloodbath’ in the province, which borders Turkey.

Jan Egeland, head of the UN’s humanitarian taskforce for Syria, said the war ‘cannot be allowed to go to Idlib’.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s civil war started in 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that were brutally repressed. 

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