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Syria: Heavy government shelling in Idlib kills 41, displaces 21,000

Syria's White Helmets recover child from rubble

The Syrian government has intensified shelling on the northern province of Idlib, displacing more than 21,000 people, amid growing evidence of the breakdown of the Sochi ceasefire agreement.

At least 41 civilians, including some 13 children, have been killed by regime bombing since the 9 February, with air strikes targeting dozens of towns in the south of Idlib and the neighbouring Hama governorate.

On Friday, six children were killed in Maarrat Al-Numan after regime forces hit the city with cluster bombs. Some of the heaviest shelling has also hit the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the site of a deadly chemical attack in 2017 which killed over 80 people. At least 20 local residents have been killed over the past ten days, with dozens more seeking treatment for injuries.

The White Helmets civil defence group have been working across the opposition held territory, transporting the wounded to hospital and rescuing civilians trapped by the debris of their ruined homes.

Last week, shelling also destroyed the largest bakery in the town, setting fire to some 80,000 tonnes of flour and halting production entirely; the bakery previously fulfilled the needs of some 10,000 families.

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, pushing further north into Idlib in a bid to escape the violence.

The new influx of refugees has prompted opposition forces to respond with artillery shelling on government military positions from the Hama countryside, with bombing continuing to take place earlier today.

READ: Twin car-bombings kill 15 in Syria's Idlib

The escalation of violence has called into question the longevity of the ceasefire deal mediated by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Sochi last September.

The Sochi agreement was credited with preventing a full-scale offensive in the northern province, home to some 3.5 million people, a third of whom are children. It stipulated the creation of a 15 kilometre deep buffer zone around the Idlib region and nearby Hama and Aleppo, in return for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry by the opposition.

However regime violations have been frequent; over 300 people, including 108 civilians have been killed in clashes since the agreement. Shelling has also increased since fighters of the Hayaat Tahrir Al-Shaam (HTS) faction consolidated their control over the province, pushing out the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) from numerous strategic towns.

Earlier this month, Ankara and Moscow announced an agreement to take "decisive measures" to stabilise Idlib, later announcing the start of joint patrols around the province in an attempt to ease tensions.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed that "significant progress" had been made in Turkey's on the Idlib issue and that talks were ongoing.

"Let's secure the Idlib region completely, we say. We are talking with Russia and Iran to do that and we have made significant progress. At least half a million Syrians are waiting for the securing of this region to return there," Erdogan said at a rally in the southern Turkish province of Kahramanmars.

However, Turkey has been largely preoccupied with the presence of Kurdish-militia groups east of the Euphrates, with plans to launch an offensive, with the support of Syrian-allied opposition groups on the ground, still under consideration.

The UN and aid organisations have repeatedly warned that a fully-fledged offensive on Idlib could spark the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the country's civil war so far.

READ: Assad meets Khamenei in first Iran visit since Syrian war began

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