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Syrian protesters storm border crossing with Turkey

Hundreds demonstrate to denounce Syrian government's offensive in Idlib, which has escalated in recent weeks
Turkish border guards fire tear gas canisters to disperse a crowd of Syrians gathering for a demonstration by the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Idlib province, Syria on 30 August (AFP)

Hundreds of Syrians have gathered near the Bab al-Hawa and Atma border crossings with Turkey to protest the relentless bombing of Syria's Idlib governorate, as Russia announced that Syrian government forces would unilaterally uphold a ceasefire.

Protesters in Bab al-Hawa broke through the border crossing into the Turkish side on Friday, while videos shared on social media showed demonstrators in Atma breaking a gate at the crossing.

Pro-government forces, backed by the Russian air force, are waging an offensive in northwest Syria against militants and allied rebels in the last opposition-held enclave in the country.

At least 400,000 people have been displaced since the offensive was launched in April - with many of them seeking shelter along the Turkish border and almost half of them living in open areas or under trees, according to the United Nations.

Local sources told Middle East Eye that the protesters gathered on Friday to put pressure on Turkey to stop the offensive and open a humanitarian corridor for displaced civilians.

Protests were held in different areas in Idlib, with demonstrators holding banners calling for the return of UN-led negotiations in Geneva and for the end of the Astana peace process launched in January 2017 by Russia and Iran.

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"This Friday's protests were under the name of 'Astana is not and will not be the answer'," activist Suhaib Mekhel told Middle East Eye from Idlib city.

Videos circulating on social media showed demonstrators on the Syrian side of the border breaking the gate at the Atma crossing. In other videos, demonstrators can be heard chanting, "The people wants to overthrow the regime" - a rallying cry synonymous with the Arab Spring revolts.

Turkish border guards fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse the demonstrators in Bab al-Hawa after they broke through the border crossing, said Omar al-Shami, a displaced activist from the Damascus countryside who was at the protest.

"The protesters clashed with the Turkish guards. I and many others suffered from tear gas suffocation," Shami told Middle East Eye.

Qusay al-Hussein, an activist displaced from southern Idlib, said the protests near the border were originally planned to be held on Bab al-Hawa's main square, but the situation escalated throughout the day.

Another activist, Hafez Terman, said hundreds of protesters crossed the Bab al-Hawa crossing and gathered around the Turkish crossing.

"People are calling for an end to the regime and Russian attacks. The protest is also to blame the international community for the bloodshed caused by the escalation in Idlib," Terman told MEE.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing is a lifeline for people in Idlib province, with vital products, such as medicine, food, and fuel, passing through.

Ceasefire announcement

Meanwhile, the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria said in a statement seen by AFP news agency that an agreement was reached to halt fire in the de-escalation zone in Idlib starting at 6am (03.00 GMT) on 31 August.

The centre also urged armed militant and rebel groups in the region to join the ceasefire, AFP reported.

'People are calling for an end to the regime and Russian attacks. The protest is also to blame the international community for the bloodshed caused by the escalation in Idlib'

- Hafez Terman, Syrian activist

Syria and Russia have escalated their assault on Idlib province over the past two days, as government forces advanced in the rebel-held enclave and captured the towns of Tamaneh, Khwain, Tal Ghubar, Zarzoor, and Tamanah Farms.

Government forces have been reinforced by Syria's elite Republican Guards unit, led by President Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher al-Assad, and Iranian-backed fighters, sources told Reuters.

"The fighting is very aggressive and is still ongoing. Government forces and their allies have adopted the scorched-earth policy … and captured several areas," said Naji Mustafa, spokesman of the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), a coalition of mainstream rebel groups.

Mohammed Rashid, media spokesman for NLF faction Jaish al-Nasr, told MEE that Russian special forces have taken part in military attacks alongside government forces.

"We have no knowledge of the regime and its allies announcing a ceasefire," he said.