Bombardment kills at least 18 people in Syria's Idlib province

Air strikes come amid an apparent unravelling of three-month-old ceasefire

TOPSHOT - Members of the Syrian Civil Defense known as White Helmets and locals search for victims in the rubble of a building after a reported Russian airstrike on a popular market in the village of Balyun in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, on December 7, 2019. Syrian regime and Russian air strikes killed 19 civilians today, eight of them children, in Idlib, the country's last major opposition bastion, a war monitor said. / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR

Air strikes in the last major Syrian rebel stronghold on Saturday killed at least 18 people, including women and children, and wounded others as a three-month truce crumbles, opposition activists said.

The air strikes on the north-western province of Idlib have intensified over the past few weeks as the government appears to be preparing for an offensive on rebel-held areas east of the province to secure the main highway that links the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest and once a commercial centre.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 people were killed in Idlib province while the Syrian Civil Defence volunteer force said 18 lost their lives.

The largest number of casualties occurred in the village of Balyoun, where the Civil Defence said eight people were killed while the Observatory said nine died when it was hit by Russian jets. Both groups also said that four people, including a child and two women, were killed in air strikes on the rebel-held village of Bara, which the Observatory also attributed to Russian jets.

Both groups also said that five others were killed in the village of Ibdeita, which the Observatory said was hit by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian helicopters. The Civil Defence said another child was killed in a nearby village in Idlib while the Observatory had two more deaths caused by barrel bombs.

Syrian state media carried no reports of military operations by the Syrian army or its Russian ally in those areas on Saturday.

Conflicting casualty figures are common in the immediate aftermath of violence in Syria, where an eight-year conflict has killed at least 400,000 people, wounded more than a million and displaced half the country’s pre-war population.

Syrian troops launched a four-month offensive earlier this year on Idlib, which is dominated by Al Qaeda-linked militants. The government offensive forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

A fragile ceasefire halted the government advance in late August but has been repeatedly breached in recent weeks.

At least 10 civilians were killed in an air strike on a market on Monday as regime forces and armed groups were locked in heavy clashes on the edge of Idlib. The Observatory said those battles were the heaviest since the ceasefire began, with 51 regime fighters and 45 of their opponents killed in 48 hours.