Idlib offensive: Street busy with iftar shoppers blown apart by airstrikes

Dozens have died in recent days as Damascus intensifies its offensive on Syria’s last rebel-held province

Idlib residents have accused the Syrian regime of intentionally striking busy shopping areas to maximise civilian casualties in its offensive against the last rebel-held province.

A warplane struck the packed Corniche Street in the town of Maaret Al Numan at 2.30pm on Sunday, killing four people and injuring dozens, witnesses told The National.

“This street was targeted because it’s the busiest area of the city,” said freelance photographer Abed Kontar, who was there during the attacks.

“It was full of people shopping for food and drink for iftar.”

Fareed Mahlool, 24, lost his aunt in the attack. He was about to leave his house to go to work as a journalist when the rockets hit.

“In the blink of an eye, I was lying on the ground with dust all around me,” Mr Mahlool said. “I was dizzy for a few minutes, but I forced myself to stand up to find my family.

“My mother and four sisters were screaming. In the living room, it was chaos.”

Mr Mahlool ran out of the house with his sister Marwa, 8, in his arms, then rushed back to find his aunt.

Her body was crushed under one of the bedroom walls. She was taken to hospital alive but died of her injuries later that day.

“My aunt was a playful, fun person who made people around her happy,” Mr Mahlool said.

His family has moved to a temporary house and plans to relocate closer to the Turkish border.

The same market area in Maaret Al Numan was hit four days ago, killing at least 12 people in a night-time strike.

President Bashar Al Assad’s government, supported by the Russian air force, launched an assault on Idlib province in late April, killing hundreds of civilians and displacing 180,000 people.

The rebel-held province had been relatively protected since a ceasefire agreement last September, although fighting continued at its borders between rebel groups and Syrian army soldiers.

Dozens of villages across northern Syria have been struck by Damascus and Russia in the past few weeks.

Activist Khodr Al Khodr argues that they have increased air strikes to “take revenge for their setbacks in the south,” referring to the battle for Kafr Nabuda, north of Hama province.

The small town has changed hands several times in the past few days.

Eman Afore, 32, a mother of three, has survived several attacks on her village of Areeha recently, including one on Monday afternoon in which at least six people were killed, activists say.

Ms Afore, whose house was damaged by the bombing, is temporarily staying with friends and hoped to move to Turkey, but has been unable to.

“There is no way out of this hellfire,” said the young widow, whose husband was killed two months ago by a barrel bomb.

“There have been numerous attacks day and night. The jets and helicopters flying above us made me and children sleepless.”

As The National spoke to her by phone, the sound of explosions could be heard in the background.

“I wish that God would just take our lives instead of making us suffer every day like this,” she said, before hanging up.

The death toll in Areeha is expected to rise, with many families believed to be buried under the rubble, said Muhammad Hallaj, a director of the Response Co-ordination Group, a local observation body.

Mr Hallaj said Monday’s attacks focused, “as usual”, on civilians, including local markets and mosques.

“Locals have been forced to cancel joma’a and taraweeh prayers during Ramadan for many times over the past years,” he said.

“In addition to wanting to take revenge on Idlib residents after their losses, the Assad regime and Russia are trying to push people away towards the Turkish border.

“Newly displaced people arrive every day with their children and nothing to eat or drink.”

Mr Hallaj and Mr Kontar predicted a humanitarian crisis as more civilians fled north towards Turkey.

“If shelling continues and people continue massing along the Turkish border, it will be a humanitarian disaster,” Mr Kontar said.

“People will be desperate to enter Turkey, even though Turkey does not want this.”

Idlib’s population has doubled to more than 3 million people in the past few years as people fled other parts of Syria.

More pressure on the Turkish border could lead to increased casualties.

Last year, Human Rights Watch accused Turkey of indiscriminately shooting at Syrians seeking refuge. The Turkish government denies this.