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Russian air strikes kill 10 civilians in Syria's Idlib: Monitor

Putin doesn't rule out Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, launching assault on militants in Idlib, but says operation is impractical for now
Syrian White Helmets search rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors in Idlib earlier this week (AFP)

Air strikes by Syrian government ally Russia killed 10 civilians in the militant-held northwestern region of Idlib on Friday, a monitor said, as unsuccessful peace talks ended in Kazakhstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday he did not rule out Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, launching a full-scale assault on militants in Idlib province, but that such an operation was unpractical for now, Reuters reported.

The Russian air raids killed three civilians including a boy on the outskirts of the town of Kafranbel, and seven including a girl in the town of Tal Hawash, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday, according to AFP.

Syria's civil war has killed more than 370,000 people since it started in 2011, and endless rounds of negotiations have failed to stem the bloodshed.

Speaking in Beijing, Putin said that Moscow and Damascus would continue what he called the fight against terrorism and that any militants who tried to break out of Idlib, something he said happened from time to time, would be bombed.

But Putin said the presence of civilians in parts of Idlib where militants were also active meant the time was not yet ripe for full-scale military operations.

The Damascus government has won back large parts of the country from rebels and militants since Russia intervened in the war in 2015.

Still, several key areas remain beyond government reach, including Idlib, which is controlled by a former al-Qaeda affiliate.

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Russia and Turkey in September signed a buffer zone deal to prevent a massive government offensive on Idlib and nearby regions close to the Turkish border.

But the area, currently home to about three million people, has come under increasing bombardment since militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) took full control of it in January.

The latest air raids came as two days of talks on ending the war in Syria - sponsored by Russia, fellow government ally Iran, and rebel-backer Turkey - concluded in Kazakhstan.

In a statement released after the meeting, the three countries expressed concern about HTS extending its influence in Idlib.

They stressed their "determination to continue cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate" HTS and the Islamic State (IS) group, the statement said.

US-backed forces expelled IS from the last patch of their 2014 "caliphate" last month, but the militants still have a presence in the Syrian desert and sleeper cells elsewhere.

The United Nations has expressed worry over the new wave of bombardment on the Idlib region, around which the buffer zone was never fully implemented.

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"I am alarmed by the recent escalation of violence and hostilities in and around the demilitarised zone in northwestern Syria," the UN regional coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said on Thursday.

"Since February, over 200 civilians have reportedly been killed in Idlib," he said.

The fighting had also resulted in 120,000 people fleeing to areas closer to the Turkey border, he added.

Moscow is keen to help Syria retake territory, including eventually Idlib province, but Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has argued against a Russian-backed offensive in a region that borders his own country.

Ankara is concerned about potential refugee flows from Idlib in the event of a military operation, and wants to retain its influence there.

Syria's war has displaced millions since it began with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

The talks in Kazakhstan Friday ended without notable progress on forming a committee to draw up a post-war constitution for the country.

After years of failed UN-led negotiations to end the war, Russia has taken a lead role in diplomatic efforts through the so-called Astana process.

The capital of Kazakhstan was called Astana until last month, when it was renamed Nur-Sultan after the country's outgoing president.