Escalation in Syria’s Idlib rattles months-old truce

KAFR NABL: Air strikes and shelling killed eight civilians in northwestern Syria on Tuesday after deadly clashes between pro-government forces and militants rattled a months-old truce and sparked a new wave of displacement.
At least 53 fighters have been killed since Monday, in one of the deadliest flare-ups since a demilitarised zone around the Idlib region was agreed in September last year, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Several deadly skirmishes have occurred since the deal was reached in Russia but the last few weeks have seen an uptick in violence inside the planned buffer zone.
The region of some three million people is under the control of a former Al Qaeda affiliate in one of the last parts of Syria President Bashar al Assad has yet to take back.
His government had threatened an all-out assault on the area last year but that was averted by the deal for a de-militarised buffer zone.
A surge in attacks since April 20 has raised new fears a government offensive is imminent, prompting thousands of civilians to flee their homes towards quieter areas deeper inside Idlib province.
“This is the third time we have been displaced but this time is the scariest,” said Abu Ahmad, a 40-year-old from southern Idlib who was fleeing with his family towards areas near the border with Turkey on Tuesday.
“Overflights by warplanes and shelling have been relentless,” said the father of three, his blue pick-up truck stacked with mattresses, bed sheets and household appliances.
Battles between militants and pro-government forces raged overnight around a hilltop in the northern countryside of Hama province, following an advance by Assad’s forces.
Twenty-four pro-government fighters were killed in fierce fighting, the Observatory said.
Twenty-nine militants were also killed. Fighting subsided early on Tuesday after pro-government forces thwarted several counter attacks and consolidated new positions, Observatory chief Rami Abdul Rahman said.
But, the air and artillery bombardment continued for an eighth straight day, killing eight civilians, the war monitor said.
At least nine civilians were killed in shelling and air strikes on Monday.
State news agency SANA said Syrian troops launched rocket attacks on armed groups in northwestern Hama province on Tuesday, killing several fighters, but it did not provide any toll.
— AFP