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Syrian army shelling kills a dozen in Idlib province, shaking faltering truce

Death toll is the highest in northwestern Syria in months and comes amid efforts by Russia and Turkey to stabilise situation in the area
Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham militants took control of Idlib province earlier this month (AFP/File photo)

At least 12 people have been killed by Syrian army shelling in the last rebel-held pocket of the country's northwest, local rescue workers and a UK-based activist group said, amid ongoing efforts to de-escalate the fighting in the area.

The shelling struck the Idlib province town of Maarat al-Numan, killing 12 civilians and injuring 25, as well as other towns and villages in the southern part of the enclave, the White Helmets, a Syrian search and rescue group, said on Tuesday, as reported by Reuters.

Witnesses in the town told Middle East Eye that the shelling struck a busy marketplace.

Khaled al-Aboud, a medic who works at the main hospital in Maarat al-Numan, told MEE that at least 35 people were wounded in the attack. "Some of their situations are critical and they might lose their lives due to their serious injuries," al-Aboud said.

He said at least three children were killed in the attack, as well as a locally-known obstetrician and three elderly men. Earlier in the day, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said two children were among those killed.

Nothing but civilians and poor, displaced business owners laying their goods out on the street

- Mohammad Baresh, activist in Maarat al-Numan

Syria's state-run news agency SANA said the army had carried out operations responding to "terrorist violations" of the truce in the southern part of the enclave, targeting insurgent fortifications, Reuters reported.

But local witnesses disputed the government's version of events.

Mohammad Baresh, a 31-year-old activist in Maarat al-Numan, told Middle East Eye that the shelling struck in the middle of a public market. "Nothing but civilians and poor, displaced business owners laying their goods out on the street," Baresh said.

Jamal Kayata, an internally displaced Syrian living in the town, said he was having lunch with his wife when he heard the explosion.

"Dust was all over the place," he said. "My son was not far from the house, selling some vegetables with our neighbour, who owns a shop."

Kayata said he rushed to the scene of the explosion and saw his son lying on the ground, amid shrapnel and the rubble of the shop. He is now in a coma at a hospital. "I am still waiting at the hospital. I pray to God he lives," Kayata said.

Al-Aboud, the medical source, said the local hospital is running out of medical supplies. "If we have daily attacks like this one today, we will use up our medical resources pretty quickly," he said.

Russia and Turkey truce

Tuesday's death toll is the highest in northwestern Syria in months, according to both the Observatory and the White Helmets.

It also comes less than a week after the presidents of Russia and Turkey met to discuss stabilisation efforts in Idlib province, which is under the control of militant group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

HTS's takeover of much of Idlib and adjacent parts of northwestern Syria earlier this month raised questions over a truce reached in September between Moscow, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Ankara, which backs some Syrian rebel factions.

Russia and Turkey agree to push back HTS in Syria's Idlib province
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That agreement averted an expected Syrian army offensive on the country's northwest, which human rights groups feared would lead to a massive humanitarian crisis.

While that planned military operation was avoided - and neither warring side has attempted to capture new territory since the deal was inked - clashes and shelling have continued around the frontline.

Moscow and Ankara have tried to create a de-escalation zone in the area, but their plans have been rapidly deteriorating with the advance of HTS.

Bashar Abdoulah, another resident of Maarat al-Numan, where Tuesday's shelling took place, said he saw several people dead or injured at the market, after he rushed to the scene of the attack.

"It is a dark day for us here," he told MEE.

"We can't have peace from clashes, or attacks from HTS trying to enter the city, and now Assad's regime is the next one in line to kill us here."

HTS accused of torturing detainees

Also on Tuesday, a suicide attack was carried out against the governing council in Idlib city, which is tied to the HTS alliance controlling much of the enclave.

One person was killed and three others were injured, the Observatory said, in the bombing against the so-called National Salvation Government, HTS's political arm.

It is a dark day for us here. We can't have peace from clashes, or attacks from HTS trying to enter the city, and now Assad's regime is the next one in line to kill us here

- Bashar Abdoulah, Maarat al-Numan resident

The Observatory said a woman carried out the attack, which follows a succession of blasts in the northwest in recent months.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused HTS of using "torture" against activists opposing their control of Idlib province.

The rights group said it had documented 11 cases in which the militants "detained Idlib residents, apparently because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group's rule".

At least six of the detainees were tortured, including a 16-year-old boy, HRW said in a statement, and "one man described being hung from a pole upside down for hours during interrogation".

Another detainee said he was locked up in something resembling a coffin for three hours, while a third said he was pushed through a tyre and beaten incessantly in a method infamously used by Syrian government security services, HRW reported.

"The maximum you can do is move your shoulders a bit. And scream for help. But on several occasions, they stuffed things in my mouth so I can't scream," the detainee told the group.

- Zouhir Al Shimale contributed reporting.