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Human Rights

Dozens killed as Damascus presses Idlib offensive



A Syrian boy cries as he is evacuated following a regime airstrike on Ariha in Syria's last major opposition bastion of Idlib on January 15th. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

Dozens of fighters and civilians were killed in Syria's Idlib province as the government pressed a deadly offensive Thursday (January 16th) towards a key town in the country's last opposition bastion.

The latest violence, which followed airstrikes that killed 18 civilians on Wednesday, buried a ceasefire deal announced by Russia and opposition backer Turkey that never really took hold.

"Clashes broke out around midnight on Wednesday south of the city of Maaret al-Numan, together with heavy bombardment despite the Russian-Turkish truce," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

At least 22 anti-government fighters were killed, most of them members of extremist alliance Tahrir al-Sham.

Seventeen government troops and allied militia were also killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.

Abdel Rahman added that government forces were now just seven kilometres from Maaret al-Numan, a town that was one of the bastions of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Nearly nine years into the conflict, protests against the government are still held in some of the province's towns.

In the city of Idlib itself, 18 civilians were killed and several others wounded in Russian and Syrian airstrikes on Wednesday, the Observatory said.

The strikes blew several buildings in an industrial zone to smithereens and engulfed several vehicles, leaving torched corpses of motorists trapped inside.

'Nowhere to go'

Mustafa, who runs a repair shop in the area, was lucky to escape with his life. He had just left the store to pick up some spare parts.

He told AFP he returned to find the shop destroyed and his four employees trapped under rubble. It was not immediately clear if they had survived.

"This is not the neighbourhood I left two minutes ago!" Mustafa said, tears rolling down his face.

The ceasefire announced by the Russian army on Sunday joins a long list of short-lived or still-born initiatives to curb the violence in Syria.

"We live here without knowing if there is really a truce or if it's just in the media. On the ground, there is no truce. People are afraid, the markets are empty," said Sari Bitar, a 32-year-old engineer living in Idlib city.

"Just like everybody else, I cannot stay in an area on which the regime, Russian forces and Iranian militia will advance," he said.

"The only problem is that there is nowhere to go," Bitar said. "Syria is now limited to this geographical area, which is getting smaller day by day."

Idlib province is a dead end for people displaced from other formerly opposition-held parts of the country that government forces have retaken.

Idlib has come under mounting bombardment in recent weeks, displacing tens of thousands of people in the north-western province home to some three million.

The UN humanitarian co-ordination agency OCHA said that since December 1st alone, almost 350,000 people had fled their homes, mainly heading northwards from southern Idlib which has borne the brunt of the airstrikes.

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