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Zardana reels after attack as air strikes escalate in Idlib

A sudden uptick in bombing has stoked fears that a new offensive on northern Syria could be on its way
Youths inspect the bombing site in Zardana, northern Syria (MEE/Harun al-Aswad)

ZARDANA, Syria – Standing on the pile of rubble that used to be his shop, Abu Abdo described the terror Zardana experienced on Thursday night when air strikes struck the town in northern Syria at prayer time.

“The first time the rockets hit, everyone ran towards the wounded,” Abu Abdo told Middle East Eye. “At the same time, there were repeated overflights.”

At the sound of the returning jets, everyone who had been gathering at the blast site began to flee, Abu Abdo said.

The Zardana resident said people fled in two directions – either towards the mosque or over to the other side.

“Most of the civilians who fled to the other side were killed,” he added. “As you can see, there is great destruction.”

Abu Abdo inspects his ruined shop in Zardana (MEE/Harun al-Aswad)

The attack on the town in northern Syria’s Idlib province shocked its residents, many of whom were gathering at a local mosque to pray during the holy month of Ramadan.

At least 51 were killed in the attack, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said was likely carried out by Russia.

'There are still a number of civilians under the rubble. We know nothing about them'

- Abu Abdo, Zardana resident

On Friday, activists told MEE that 11 buildings were razed by the missiles, some four floors high.

“There are still a number of civilians under the rubble,” Abu Abdo said. “We know nothing about them.”

Raised fears

The attack has raised fears of an uptick of bombing across the rebel-held province.

On Sunday night, fresh air strikes hit Benish, killing 11 people and laying waste to a paediatrics hospital.

Idlib province is controlled by a collection of rebel groups, ranging from those described as moderate by the international community to al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

It is the last major redoubt of forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who, with support from Russia, Iran and Lebanese group Hezbollah, has retaken much of the territory he lost in the uprising that has raged since 2011.

As more regions of Syria fall under Assad’s control, waves of displaced people flood into Idlib province.

On Monday, United Nations regional humanitarian coordinator Panos Moumtzis said 950,000 people have been displaced in Syria this year alone, with many of them heading to Idlib.

Now some 2.5 million people are estimated to live in the province, the majority of them displaced from elsewhere.

UN regional humanitarian coordinator Panos Moumtzis said 950,000 people have been displaced in Syria this year alone

Moumtzis called on world powers to come together and avoid a bloodbath in the rebel stronghold.

"With this escalation, this deterioration, we worry really about seeing 2.5 million people becoming displaced more and more towards the border of Turkey if this is to continue," he told reporters in Geneva.

"We also worry that for the people of Idlib, there is no other Idlib to take them out to, really this is the last location," he said.

The bloodbath has arrived

For the people of Zardana, however, the bloodbath has already arrived.

The mainly residential town has been largely spared bombing in recent months. It is controlled by Islamist rebels, with a small HTS presence.

Following the bombing, rumours spread that rebel leaders were targeted in the mosque.

However, on Friday, Omar al-Hanoubi, a media activist in Zardana, told MEE no such people were present during prayers.

He said members of two families belonging to rival armed groups were clashing in the neighbourhood at the time, though the strike did not target them.

“The strikes were not against them but against the civilians,” he said.

The air strike laid waste to many buildings in Zardana (MEE/Harun al-Aswad)

Jamal Hmoush, a child who lives near the site of the attack, was relaxing with friends on Thursday evening when the jets appeared.

"I was sitting on the roof of the house with my friends. We heard a sudden of explosion near our home,” he told MEE.

'Three of my brothers were wounded, several of my relatives were killed and the houses completely destroyed'

- Jamal Hmoush, Zardana resident 

“Three of my brothers were wounded, several of my relatives were killed and the houses completely destroyed,” Hmoush added.

“We tried to help the wounded but the aircraft returned to target the area.”

Double-tap strike 

In Syria, strikes on the same location within minutes of each other are a common occurrence.

Known as “double-tap strikes”, they are notorious for killing people who have rushed to the scene to rescue anyone that might be trapped under the rubble left by the first strike.

Volunteers with the Civil Defence, a search-and-rescue organisation commonly known as the White Helmets, are often killed in such raids.

Abd al-Baset, a Civil Defence volunteer, described the rescue operation to MEE: "After iftar on Thursday, the Civil Defence teams were informed that there was a warplane in the area, and we heard the sound of shelling.”

The White Helmet said when he got to the scene, other Civil Defence workers had arrived and been attacked.

“There was a double bombing strike before our arrival, targeting the rescue teams and the Civil Defence teams. They were transporting the martyrs and helping the injured.”

“As a result of the double raid, one of my colleagues was killed and three other volunteers were wounded,” Baset added.

“We also lost much of the equipment that we use to help civilians during shelling.”

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