BEIRUT, Sept 30, (AFP): At least 28 civilians were killed in air strikes on northwestern Syria where a planned safe zone has been overshadowed by a bombing campaign against jihadists, a monitor said Saturday. Four children were among the dead in the overnight strikes on the town of Armanaz, in Idlib province near the Turkish border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based watchdog had earlier reported 12 dead in the strikes on the town in Harem district around 20 kms (12 miles) northwest of the provincial capital Idlib. An AFP correspondent who toured Armanaz on Saturday morning said entire apartment blocks had been flattened by the bombardment.
The Observatory said it could not immediately determine whether the strikes had been carried out by warplanes of the Syrian government or its ally Russia. But they are the latest in an intensifying air campaign carried out by the two governments against jihadist fighters who control most of the province and are not party to a safe zone deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
The surge in bombing raids has forced hospitals in the province to close, medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Friday They were triggered by an offensive by jihadist fighters led by al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate launched against government-held villages in neighbouring Hama province on Sept 19. The jihadists control nearly all of Idlib province after driving out Islamist former allies earlier this year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed on Thursday to step up efforts to establish a safe zone in Idlib as part of a wider agreement struck in May. Three other safe zones have already been set up — in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, parts of the south and some areas of the central province of Homs. But in some of those areas too the fighting has continued. Shelling by the army killed at least 21 civilians in Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, more than half of them children, the Observatory said.
The de-escalation agreement excludes both the Islamic State group and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the alliance dominated by al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate. The Islamic State group is under attack in its remaining strongholds in eastern Syria by both Russian-backed government forces and US-backed fighters. On Thursday, it mounted a counterattack against government forces along their supply lines through the desert to the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.
At least 128 troops and militia were killed on Thursday and Friday as the army battled to restore control, the Observatory said. State media have reported the IS counterattack but have made no mention of the army’s losses.
Turkish police have detained a suspect in connection with the murders of a Syrian opposition activist and her journalist daughter, the private Dogan news agency reported on Saturday. Aroubeh Barakat and her 22-yearold daughter Halla Barakat were found dead in their Istanbul apartment last week. The police investigation reportedly concluded they had been stabbed to death, with unconfirmed reports of their throats being cut with the bodies lying undetected for up to three days. The arrest of Ahmet Barakat, believed to be a relative of the victims, followed analysis of hundreds of hours of security camera footage, according to Dogan.
Police captured him in the northwestern province of Bursa, according to the report, following several raids in the province. The suspect will be taken to Istanbul for questioning, Dogan reported. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey, according to the government figures, has become home to 3.2 million Syrian refugees, many of them opponents of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Halla Barakat had been working for a website called Orient News and had previously worked for Turkish state broadcaster TRT. Syrian opposition activists and journalists have repeatedly complained of threats to their security. Two Syrian journalists from the city of Raqqa who were opposed to the Islamic State (IS) extremist group were found beheaded in southern Turkey in 2015.