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Russian jets strike rebel-held bastion in northwestern Syria

Witnesses say Sunday's bombings in Idlib were the most extensive since a ceasefire was agreed in March by Russia and Turkey
Idlib bombing AFP
Smoke billows following a reported Russian air strike on the western countryside of the mostly rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib, on 20 September 2020 (AFP)

Syrian opposition sources said Russian jets bombed rebel-held northwestern Syria on Sunday in the most extensive strikes since a Turkish-Russian deal halted major fighting with a ceasefire nearly six months ago.

Witnesses said the warplanes struck the western outskirts of Idlib city and that there was heavy artillery shelling in the mountainous Jabal al-Zawya region in southern Idlib from nearby Syrian army outposts. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

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"These 30 raids are by far the heaviest strikes so far since the ceasefire deal," Mohammed Rasheed, a former rebel official and a volunteer plane spotter whose network covers the Russian air base in the western coastal province of Latakia, told Reuters.

Other tracking centres said Russian Sukhoi jets hit the Horsh area and Arab Said town, west of the city of Idlib. Unidentified drones also hit two rebel-held towns in the Sahel al-Ghab plain, west of Hama province.

There has been no widescale aerial bombing since a March agreement ended a Russian-backed bombing campaign that displaced over a million people in the region, which borders Turkey, after months of fighting.

There was no immediate comment from Moscow or the Syrian army, who have long accused militant groups that hold sway in the last opposition redoubt of wrecking the ceasefire deal and attacking army-held areas.

The deal between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia's President Vladimir Putin also defused a military confrontation between them after Ankara poured thousands of troops into Idlib province to hold back Russian-backed forces from new advances.

Turkish military presence

Western diplomats tracking Syria say Moscow piled pressure on Ankara in the latest round of talks on Wednesday to scale down its extensive military presence in Idlib. Turkey has more than 10,000 troops stationed in dozens of bases there, according to opposition sources in touch with the Turkish military.

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Turkey, which backs Syrian rebels in and around Idlib, has poured arms and men into the province in an attempt to halt an offensive by pro-Damascus forces that has displaced nearly a million people towards the Turkish border.

Shortly after the Moscow ceasefire agreement was signed, Erdogan said Turkey would not withdraw troops from its 12 ceasefire observation stations in Syria's Idlib province.

The mutual escalation in Syria's northwest has led to violent and deadly confrontations between Turkish troops and Syrian government forces.

Witnesses say there has been a spike in sporadic shelling from Syrian army outposts against Turkish bases in the last two weeks. Rebels say the Syrian army and its allied militias were amassing troops on front lines.

Two witnesses said on Sunday that a Turkish military column comprising at least 15 armoured vehicles was seen overnight entering Syria through the Kafr Lusin border crossing in the direction of a main base in rural Idlib.