WASHINGTON - Russian warplanes stepped up airstrikes on Idlib over the weekend, the last rebel-held province in Syria. Sixteen civilians were killed, and schools, hospitals and markets were destroyed, according to activists and civilians in the province.
The onslaught targeted a number of areas in the city and its countryside after the rebels shot down a Sukhoi Su-25 warplane, killing its pilot on Saturday.
“The Russian airstrikes concentrated on the town of Saraqeb, the closest to the Abu Al-Duhur military airport (captured by the Syrian government in January 2018). But after the rebels shot down the Russian fighter jet, the intensity of the attacks increased and stretched to other areas,” Khattab Al Ahmed, a journalist based in Idlib, told VOA.
“About 11 people suffered from breathing difficulties after the town of Saraqeb was attacked by chlorine gas,” Al Ahmed said.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Russia carried out a series of "pinpoint strikes" against rebel targets in response to the rebel strikes. The Russian defense ministry has repeatedly rejected allegations that its planes target civilians, saying they take great care to avoid collateral damage.
On Saturday, footage of the wreckage of the downed Russian jet circulated after rebels used a surface-to-air missile to shoot it down.
The Russian ministry of defense revealed the identity of the pilot as Maj. Roman Filipov. The ministry said he ejected himself from his jet, exchanged gunfire with the militants then blew himself up with a hand grenade when they closed in on him. The defense ministry added it was working to retrieve the pilot’s remains.
The Liberation of the Levant Organization, commonly known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group spearheaded by a former al-Qaida affiliate, claimed responsibility for shooting down the Russian jet.
This is the first time a Russian fighter jet was shot down since Russia began its aerial military campaign in support of Syrian government in 2015, according to the BBC.
In August 2016, a Russian helicopter was downed by rebels, killing five of its crew. The Russian ministry of defense said the Mi-8 military helicopter was on its way to its military base in Latakia West Syria when it was hit with a shoulder-fired missile over Idlib.
Last December, a Russian military airbase east of Syria was attacked by mortars, killing two servicemen. The attack targeted a fleet of warplanes at the Hmeimim airbase in the northwestern Latakia province, putting seven warplanes out of action, including Su-35 and Su-24 fighter jets, according to Russian Defense Ministry.
A refugee camp
The ongoing Russian and Syrian airstrikes forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee to the Idlib province from other Syrian provinces such as Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Idlib was also a destination for thousands of people evacuated from rebel-held territories under agreements with the Syrian regime.
Since Dec. 25, 223 civilians have been killed, including 65 children. Dozens of people were seriously injured, and a number of medical clinics had been destroyed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor.
Al Ahmed said patients in the Kafranbel hospital in Idlib were evacuated as the hospital was pounded three consecutive times.
“Patients survived after the first strike hit close to the hospital. Medical crews and the civil defense evacuated all patients before the last strike, which completely destroyed the hospital and put it out of service,” Al Ahmed said.
“The strikes concentrated on civilian areas and hospitals.” Al Ahmed said.
Some information reported in this story is from Reuters.