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Russia ramps up air strikes in Daraa

Opposition military commanders have said the air strikes mark an unprecedented escalation
Among the most heavily affected areas is the Daraa neighbourhood of Tareeq Sed (AFP)

DARAA, Syria - On Saturday and Sunday, Russian warplanes launched 17 strikes in and around Daraa, striking targets in the countryside as well as the city. 

One of the most heavily affected areas – the neighbourhood Tareeq Sed, which is controlled by the secular Southern Front, a faction of the moderate Free Syrian Army - has seen 11 civilians killed from air strikes, with one strike killing nine members from one family. Syria’s civil defense center in Daraa said most of the casualties are children.

According to Abu Ayham, a local who witnessed the bombing, an aircraft flew overhead for several minutes, and then bombed the residential area.

"I went in haste to the site, and tried to call for an ambulance and rescue the family, but rubble was covered all over the place. All those who were in the house had been killed,” Ayham said.

Local activists told MEE that Russian planes have ramped up air strikes on Daraa in the past three days. During that time, 20 civilians have been killed and dozens more wounded. The heaviest raids hit the district near the city’s dam, as well as the city of Nawa and Sheikh Maskin.

In a statement written to MEE, Abu Hamza, a Southern Front military commander, said the increased air strikes on Daraa is an unprecedented escalation on the province.

In Sheikh Maskin, a city north of Daraa, Russian air strikes have turned the tide of battle in favour of government forces, which are advancing on rebel positions. Moderate opposition fighters once controlled the area.

Russia began its air campaign in Syria on 30 September, but southern Syria, including Daraa, was left alone until 30 October, when Russian planes began bombing sites controlled by the opposition that had control of the strategic hills in the northwest Daraa region.

One of the first Russian air strikes in southern Syria killed seven civilians near the water wells in the town of Al Ghariya, an area controlled by the Southern Front.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his country's air campaign in Syria in recent weeks, targeting anti-government rebels as well religious fighters, the Islamic State (IS) group and Jabhat al-Nusra.

On 31 October, IS downed a commercial Russian plane taking off from Egypt, killing all 224 people on board.

However, IS does not occupy Daraa, and the area is under intense battle between Russian-backed government forces and secualr Syrian opposition groups.

Since Russian air strikes began, a total of 403 civilians have been killed, including 97 children.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights highlight the considerable civilian toll and raises questions about the effectiveness of the strikes targeting largely civilian areas and the moderate opposition fighters.