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Airstrikes in Idlib intensify

The death toll in Syria’s north western Idlib province has risen to 15 following Russian and Syrian airstrikes in the rebel-held area.

The Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, said that along with artillery barrages, Russian aircraft attacked the al-Kaseeh neighbourhood in central Idlib and its rural outskirts with four air raids on Wednesday. Idlib is largely controlled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which on Thursday vowed to retaliate against Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. These airstrikes mark Russia’s first major assault in Syria for months and the Russian and Syrian bombardment of the area was the most extensive to date.

Three million people live in Idlib province, including many jihadist fighters who have been transferred to the area after the fall of other rebel enclaves, such as Homs and Aleppo.

In response to the bombardment, HTS said in a statement: “There is no solution against the Russian occupier, Assad’s forces and the Iranian militias except confrontation and confrontation only.” Russia’s defence ministry confirmed it had hit Idlib in coordination with Turkey, targeting drones and weapons stores of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadists it said were intended for use in an attack on a major Russian airbase near the Mediterranean coast.

Last September, Russia, along with Turkey – which backs opposition groups in Idlib, agreed to create a demilitarised zone that put on hold an offensive on Idlib which was described as a “dumping ground” for evacuees who fled government offensives in other parts of the country. The 15-to-20km-wide zone was meant to allow for the withdrawal of all radical fighters from Idlib.

The airstrikes took place as foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to pledge as much $5bn (£3.8bn) to support Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where many Syrians have sought refuge. The three day conference, which ended yesterday, agreed that no refugees would be forced to return to Syria against their will and that no cash for reconstruction would be released unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to a UN-backed political settlement.