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'More than 60 dead' in latest clashes in northwest Syria

Scores killed in fighting between government forces and armed groups in past 24 hours, activist group says
The Idlib region is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the country's former al-Qaeda affiliate (AFP)

Clashes between Syrian government forces and armed groups in the country's last major opposition bastion have killed more than 60 people in the past 24 hours, despite UN calls for de-escalation, a UK-based activist group has said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday that 38 militant fighters and allied rebels had been killed in battles with government forces in the northwestern province of Idlib since Thursday night.

The fighting near the town of Maarat al-Numan, which is held by the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also killed 23 Syrian government loyalists, the Observatory said.

Russian warplanes, meanwhile, pounded areas around Maarat al-Numan and the nearby town of Saraqib with a series of air strikes, according to the activist group, which relies on local sources in Syria.

The flare-up triggered a wave of displacement from nearby areas, said a correspondent for the AFP news agency there.

Yasser Ibrahim al-Dandal told AFP he was fleeing with his family to olive groves in northern Idlib, where they would sleep out in the open.

"Hundreds of rockets hit Maarat al-Numan," he said. "The situation is very bad." 

UN call for 'immediate de-escalation'

The Idlib region, which is home to some three million people, including many displaced by Syria's civil war, is controlled by HTS, the country's former al-Qaeda branch.

The Syrian government has repeatedly vowed to take it back under control.

Assad forces bombard northwest Syria, kill 23 civilians, says monitor
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Pro-government forces launched a blistering offensive against the region in April, killing around 1,000 civilians and displacing more than 400,000 people from their homes.

Moscow announced a ceasefire in late August, but the Observatory says deadly bombardment and skirmishes have persisted.

The United Nations this week condemned a deadly rise in violence in the area after the Observatory reported that government air strikes and artillery fire had killed 23 civilians on Tuesday.

Najat Rochdi, senior humanitarian adviser to the UN's Syria envoy, called for an "immediate de-escalation".

Syria's war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions from their homes since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.