BEIRUT (AP) - Airstrikes targeted Syria’s last major rebel stronghold in the northwestern province of Idlib on Monday, killing at least four people, including a woman and her child, opposition activists said.
The attacks come as Syrian government forces turn their focus on another rebel-held town in Idlib, Maaret al-Numan, following gains they made last week.
Syrian troops have been on the offensive since April 30, and have also captured all rebel-held areas in the adjoining Hama province, as well as the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. From the town, they are now pushing north.
The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense rescue group, also known as White Helmets, said the airstrikes and artillery shelling targeted the village of in Basqala and nearby locations. Three people died in Basqala and the fourth, a man, in another village close by, Maaret Harmeh.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a higher toll, saying the airstrikes killed six people in Idlib, including three in the village of Basqala on the southern edge of the province. Among the three killed in Basqala were a woman and her child, it said. The differences between the Observatory’s death toll and that of the White Helmets could not immediately be reconciled.
State news agency SANA said troops are pounding insurgent positions in the town of Maaret al-Numan and several nearby villages. It said insurgents fired rockets in government-held villages, inflicting casualties among the civilian population.
Maaret al-Numan, like Khan Sheikhoun, sits on the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. Government forces are trying to eventually open that highway.
The months of fighting have also displaced more than half a million civilians toward northern parts of Idlib, already home to some 3 million people, according to United Nations humanitarian officials.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said 15 people, including four children, were reportedly killed over the weekend. In Idlib, he said people have sought shelter in more than 100 schools, with hundreds of thousands staying in the open air outside overcrowded camps and reception centers.
“As the new school year is scheduled to begin soon, access to education will be compromised for many children,” he said.
Also Monday, Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said Turkish and U.S. troops will soon begin joint patrols as part of a deal for a so-called safe zone in northeastern Syria. He said a joint helicopter flight has already taken place.
Akar made the comments days after announcing that a joint U.S.-Turkish operation center for the safe zone had started working under the command of one Turkish and one American general.
Turkey has been pressing for a safe zone, running east of the Euphrates River toward the Iraqi border, to push U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militias away from its frontier. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists linked to an insurgency within Turkey.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday renewed a threat of a Turkish military offensive in the region if the safe zone is not established.
“If we are forced into a path that we don’t desire, if we are kept waiting, all of our preparations have been completed and we will execute our plans,” Erdogan said.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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