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Civilian Death Toll Mounts as Syrian Offensive Widens

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 photo, released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian army soldiers flash the victory sign as they stand on a tank, in northwestern Syria.
FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 photo, released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian army soldiers flash the victory sign as they stand on a tank, in northwestern Syria.

BEIRUT - Airstrikes have killed more than two dozen civilians in northwestern Syria in the last two days in an escalation of a Russian-backed offensive against the last major rebel stronghold, a war monitor and local activists said Saturday.

An airstrike in the village of Deir Sharki killed seven members of one family, most of them children, on Saturday morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another seven people were killed by bombardments in other areas, it said.

On Friday, airstrikes in the village of al-Haas killed 13 people. The dead included a pregnant woman and her unborn baby, local activists and the observatory said. They had been seeking shelter after fleeing another area.

Rami Abdulrahman, director of the observatory, said the government's aim was apparently to force civilians to flee from areas that had been relatively unscathed in the military escalation that began in late April.

"They are bombing the towns and their outskirts to push people to flee," he said, adding that hundreds of families were moving northward, away from the targeted areas.

No military positions

Ahmad al-Dbis, safety and security manager for the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which supports medical facilities in the northwest, said the bombardment had widened into populated areas where there were no military positions.

"They are being targeted to drive the people towards forced displacement," he told Reuters.

Dbis said the number of civilians killed by government or Russian forces stood at more than 730 since late April. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said more than 500 civilians have died in hostilities.

Russia and Syria have said their forces are not targeting civilians and are instead aimed at militants including the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group formerly known as the al-Nusra Front and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

The northwestern region including Idlib province is part of the last major foothold of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

Government troops advance

The government side has been advancing toward Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province, threatening to encircle the last remaining pocket of rebel-held territory in neighboring Hama province.

Capt. Naji Musafa, spokesman for rebel National Liberation Front, said fierce clashes were raging in southern Idlib province and adjoining areas of Hama province.

France called Friday for an immediate end to the fighting. The French Foreign Ministry added that it condemned in particular airstrikes on camps for the displaced.

The surge in violence has already forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee toward the border with Turkey, which backs some of the rebels in the northwest and has its own troops on the ground in the area.

A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel force based north of Aleppo, the National Army, said it had yet to send reinforcements to help the Idlib rebels because of technical reasons.

The National Army had said it would send the fighters Friday.

"There is a meeting today among the factions over preparations for the National Army to enter Idlib, and we are awaiting the results of this meeting," Maj. Youssef Hammoud, its spokesman, said.

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