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Syria: HTS military spokesman killed by rocket attack in Idlib

Pro-government raids kill Abu Khalid al-Shami and several civilians as clashes heat up in Idlib's south
Abu Khalid al-Shami's car in southern Idlib was hit by a pro-Syrian government rocket attack (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

A rocket attack killed a senior Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) leader in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province on Thursday morning, Syrian activists told Middle East Eye. At least five civilians, including a child, were also killed in the raids.

Abu Khalid al-Shami, the group’s military spokesman, was killed along with Abu Musab al-Homsi, another official in the HTS media office, when their car was directly targeted around 9am.

"The car was monitored by modern reconnaissance drones that gave accurate coordinates to anti-tank guided missiles, which burned the entire car and killed the two leaders immediately," an activist on the scene told MEE, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Shami was likely touring the southern Idlib frontline when he was killed, an area that has witnessed renewed pro-Syrian government assaults since the beginning of the month. Idlib and its environs is the last remaining rebel enclave, and the majority is held by HTS, a hard-line militant group.

The activist said Shami was struck amid a barrage of attacks that also killed civilians.

“One of the attacks this morning targeted a house inhabited by civilians in Jabal al-Zawiya, south of Idlib, which happened while Shami was passing through. He stopped to search for survivors among the ruins of the house,” the source said.

A man holding a child's toy weeps in a house in southern Idlib hit by a pro-Syrian government rocket attack (MEE/Ali Hajj Suleiman)
A man holding a child's toy weeps in a house in southern Idlib hit by a pro-Syrian government rocket attack (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

"There are about five other civilian deaths, including a woman and her 11-year-old child, in addition to extensive destruction of civilian property."

The activist predicted the death toll is likely to increase. “There are many serious civilian casualties as a result of the shelling that targeted the area indiscriminately," he added.

Intense raids

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group with a network of sources on the ground, also reported Shami and Homsi were killed by a rocket attack.

The SOHR said about 12 Russian air raids targeted southern and eastern Idlib on Thursday morning, and that 150 rockets had targeted the area over the past five days.

The Civil Defence search and rescue team, known as the White Helmets, said Russian and Syrian attacks had left a man dead and it struggled to retrieve wounded civilians because of the intensity of the raids.

Volunteers carry the body of someone killed in a pro-Syrian government rocket attack in southern Idlib (MEE/Ali Hajj Suleiman)
Volunteers carry the body of someone killed in a pro-Syrian government rocket attack in southern Idlib (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

Tariq Alloush, the White Helmets director in the southern village of Balion, supervised rescue efforts. He said the missile attacks killed eight people and wounded 11 others, including children and women, some of whom were seriously hurt.

“Since the beginning of this month, the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya and Sahl al-Ghab have witnessed a continuous escalation, as they are subjected to Syrian and Russian missile, artillery and air attacks,” he told MEE.

Over recent months, displaced Syrians have been returning to the area around Jabal al-Zawiya to harvest their crops, and Alloush noted this coincided with renewed pro-government attacks after a period of calm.

"Idlib residents rely on agriculture as a major source of income. Now as a result of the attacks, the region is experiencing a new exodus towards the Syrian-Turkish border," Alloush said.

Shaky ceasefire

Since early 2020, northwestern Syria has been spared fighting due to a ceasefire agreement brokered between Russia, an ally of the government forces, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

However, government forces have violated the deal several times.

Turkish forces deployed in Idlib under the agreement responded to the latest attacks by shelling government forces, according to the SOHR.

Jabal al-Zawiya is a prominent rebel stronghold, and the hometown of Hussein Harmoush, founder of the Free Syrian Army, as well as other prominent opposition leaders.

HTS has not yet officially confirmed Shami and Homsi’s killing, but Telegram accounts loyal to the group confirmed their deaths alongside Abu Tamer al-Homsi, who is regularly charged with escorting Western media teams visiting Idlib.

Shami, a native of the Eastern Ghouta town of Jisreen, fought with the Nour al-Huda rebel group in the former opposition stronghold before joining HTS.

He was displaced to northern Syria after pro-government forces took control of Eastern Ghouta in early 2018.