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Russian jets kill at least 25 in northwestern Syria

Deaths come as Kurds appeal for help from US-backed coalition as fires ravage vital wheat fields in the northeast
Witnesses said war planes flying at high altitude, which monitors said were Russian Sukhoi jets, had dropped the bombs (AFP)

Aerial strikes on Monday killed at least 25 people, mostly civilians, in northwestern Syria in the sixth week of a Russian-led military offensive that has so far killed hundreds of civilians, according to residents and civil rescuers.

Witnesses said warplanes flying at high altitude, which monitors said were Russian Sukhoi jets, dropped bombs on the village of Jabala in southern Idlib province, with rescuer teams so far pulling out 13 bodies, including women and children.

Russian jets were also behind several raids that hit the towns of Khan Sheikhoun, Kfar Batikh and several other villages, leaving at least another 12 civilians dead, according to another local rescuer, Reuters news agency reported.

Rescuers say the major aerial campaign that Moscow has thrown its weight behind since it was launched in earnest at the end of April has killed over 1,500 people - with more than half of the death toll civilians.

Residents and local and international aid agencies that support the rebel-held areas say the sustained campaign that has bombed schools and knocked down medical centres was to smash the spirit of civilians in opposition areas.

Ahmed Mahmoud, Islamic Relief's Syria director, told Middle East Eye that air strikes struck the village of Jbala. 

Mahmoud, who is using a pseudonym for security reasons, noted that villages targeted were "far away from the frontlines of the conflict".

"Yesterday was another bloody day, with the most brutal attack when air strikes hit a small village called Jbala, where Islamic Relief works and has recently rehabilitated a primary school," Mahmoud said. 

"The main market - full of ordinary people going about their day - in the village of Mar Shureen was also hit. The town of Khan Sheikhoun, including a primary school, was attacked by barrel bombs, rockets and artillery."  

More than 300,000 people have fled the frontlines to the safety of areas near the border with Turkey, UN and aid agencies say.

Indiscriminate bombing allegations

The Russian-backed offensive has so far failed to make major inroads into rebel territory in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces, where rebels backed by Turkey alongside militant fighters are putting up fierce resistance in their last remaining bastion in Syria.

Russia and the Syrian army deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, or a campaign to paralyse everyday life in opposition-held areas, and say they are battling al-Qaeda-inspired fighters.

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Moscow blames the rebels for breaking a truce by hitting government-held areas and says Turkey has failed to live up to its obligations under a deal brokered last year that created a buffer zone in the area that obliges it to push out militants.

Civilians in rebel-held areas, where many oppose returning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's one-party rule, look to Turkey which has steadily built up a military presence in the area as a protector against the Russian-led strikes.

Northwest Syria, including Idlib province and parts of neighbouring provinces, has an estimated three million inhabitants, about half of whom had already fled fighting elsewhere, according to the United Nations. 

Raging fires

Meanwhile, a Kurdish official in northeast Syria called for help from the US-backed coalition on Monday as fires ravaged  vital wheat fields in the latest of such blazes nationwide.

Fires have erupted in various parts of Syria in recent weeks, with all sides blaming each other for starting them.

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Earlier this month, farmers in Idlib told Middle East Eye that Syrian warplanes targeted their fields with white phosphorus-loaded munitions, the use of which in civilian areas is banned under international conventions.

Syria's Kurds have led the fight against Islamic State (IS) in the north and east of the country, backed by a US-led military coalition.

As the eight-year civil war winds down in the area, they are seeking to retain a degree of autonomy from the Damascus regime in a large cereal and oil-rich region under their control in the northeast of the country.

"Fires today engulfed hundreds of hectares of wheat in Tirbespi and the fires are still raging," the head of the Kurdish agriculture authority Salman Bardo said, referring to the town known as al-Qahtaniya in Arabic.

"It's a huge danger for the region because the fire is close to oil wells and stations," he warned.

In the Kurdish-run breadbasket province of Hasakeh, of which Qahtaniya is part, IS has claimed several arson attacks on wheat fields.

A correspondent for the AFP news agency saw black smoke billow over golden fields scorched black, as men tried to put out flames with shovels just metres away from oil installations.

One man in a bulldozer was desperately trying to plough the earth to stop the fire from spreading.

"We ask the international coalition to intervene to extinguish the fires using special fire planes," we don't have, Bardo said.

Abderrizq al-Mahmud, a 29-year-old wheat grower, said his family's land had been destroyed.

"Forty-five hectares have gone up in flames, and I only have eight hectares left" after the fire roared in on Sunday, he said.

Fields targeted

After years of drought and then civil war, Syria is expecting a bumper crop of wheat this year.

The destruction of farmland in Idlib is just the latest attempt by the government of Syria President Bashar al-Assad to starve its people into submission, say analysts.  

But farmers have also blamed revenge attacks, low-quality fuel causing sparks, and even carelessness.

Both the Damascus government and the Kurdish authorities are competing to buy up the wheat produced this year in northeast Syria.

Analysts say wheat will be key to ensuring affordable bread and keeping the peace in various parts of Syria in the coming period.

The civil war has killed more than 370,000 people, made millions homeless, and devastated the country's economy since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Areeb Ullah contributed reporting from London for this article.