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Russian air strikes reportedly kill several children in northwest Syria

Air strikes on Kafranbel in Idlib province killed 10 civilians, including five children, says UK-based activist group
Russia said that it had repelled a drone and missile attack on its Hmeimim air base over the weekend (AFP - File pic)

Air strikes by Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have killed 10 civilians, including five children, in the northwest of the country, a UK-based activist group said on Monday, hours after Moscow announced a ceasefire there.

The Russian army said the air raids overnight on the town of Kafranbel in the Idlib province came after it pinpointed the area as the launchpad for rocket fire on its key Syrian airbase of Hmeimim.

Russia's Ministry of Defence said on Monday that it had repelled a drone and missile attack on Hmeimim over the weekend, accusing fighters from Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), of being behind the assault.

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Russia's RIA news agency cited the ministry as saying it had shot down six missiles fired at the air base in Latakia Province.

HTS controls a large part of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

Idlib is supposed to be protected from a government offensive by a September buffer zone deal, but Syrian government and Russian bombardment has increased there since late April.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Russian air strikes overnight killed five children, four women and one man in Kafranbel.

The raids hit near a hospital in the town, knocking it out of service, the Observatory said.

Widespread destruction

A correspondent for the AFP news agency saw five homes on the edges of the town that were destroyed or damaged after the strikes.

Survivors picked through the debris in order to save any belongings, the reporter said, while a young man covered in dust from head to toe leant against a wall, shell-shocked after his father was killed.

Umm Wasel narrowly missed the air strike on her home after relatives invited her over to break her daily fast with them during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"I came back at night to find my home devastated," the 72-year-old, dressed in a long red robe and a black scarf covering her hair, told AFP.

People "had thought I was under the rubble" she said.

'Children are particularly vulnerable'

SOHR said six other civilians also died in bombardments by pro-Assad forces in other parts of the Idlib region on Sunday.

Fighting raged in the north of Hama province between government loyalists and militants early on Monday, the Observatory said, after a relative respite in the bombardments over the past three days.

Russian fighter jets pounded the south of Idlib province, while government aircraft targeted the north of Hama province with machine guns, missiles, and crude barrel bombs, the Observatory added.

Save the Children said 38 children had been killed in shelling in northwest Syria since 1 April, including nine at school, seven at markets and one in a hospital.

"Schools, hospitals and other vital civilian infrastructure must be protected from attack," the charity's Syria director Sonia Khush said.

"Children are particularly vulnerable to the impact of explosive weapons, and warring parties should make a particular effort to protect them."

The deadly Russian air strikes come after Moscow on Sunday said Syrian armed forces had "unilaterally ceased fire in the Idlib de-escalation zone" from 18 May at midnight.

Mountain range held by HTS

HTS said on Sunday that it had held onto a commanding position in a mountain range in the coastal province of Latakia, the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after government forces were forced to withdraw.

The militants said the army's attempt was the latest of several costly campaigns to try to seize the Kubayna mountain.

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An HTS official claimed poison gas was used in the army's attack on their position on the mountain slopes.

Abu Baraa al-Shami, a fighter based there, told Reuters news agency that several fighters suffered choking symptoms.

"Whoever controls Kubayna ensures a large stretch of territory is effectively under their firing range," said Major Youssef Hamoud, spokesman for the Turkey-backed group of mainstream rebels called the National Army.

"The regime wants it to protect its coastal villages from rebel fire." 

The eviction of militants from commanding positions in the mountains would bring the army closer to securing parts of Idlib and a main highway that connects the cities of Latakia and Aleppo.