At least 18 people have been killed after an explosion in the centre of Jisr Al-Shughour in the opposition stronghold of Idlib, a day after heavy Russian air strikes in the vicinity, rescue workers and residents said.
Several residential buildings collapsed as a result of the blast near a road between the coastal city of Latakia and city of Aleppo.
“The casualties are expected to rise. The cause is not known,” said Ahmad Yaziji, head of the White Helmets civil defence unit in the city. At least 40 others have been injured as rescue crews continue to pull bodies from the rubble.
The number of casualties is still likely to rise in the coming hours due to the presence of wounded and many missing civilians in the explosion. Civil Defense teams are still working to remove debris and save civilians. pic.twitter.com/yvIxkamJmp
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 24, 2019
Russia is suspected of being behind the blast; air strikes continued to take place overnight and this morning on the towns of Saraqib, Khan Sheikhoun, and villages in the countryside of Hama, resulting in several casualties. On Tuesday some seven people, including three children were killed in similar attacks.
The last remaining opposition bastion has witnessed an escalation in attacks by Russian warplanes, the Syrian army and Iranian militias, even though they are protected by a “de-escalation zone” mandated by the Sochi agreement brokered last year between Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Some 336 civilians including 109 children and 75 women, have been killed since the agreement last September – the Syrian regime attacked the northern opposition-held territories 6,422 times in March alone.
The continued bombardment has sent people fleeing from opposition-held towns in the buffer zone that straddles parts of Idlib to northern Hama and parts of Latakia province. Between 9 February and 6 April, 160,583 people were forced to migrate to areas near the Turkish border, according to local NGOs.
Turkey, which has backed several opposition groups and has troops to monitor the truce, has been negotiating with Moscow to halt the Russian strikes with little success. However many residents are exasperated by the failure of Turkish forces to adequately respond to the bombardments.
The Sochi deal was credited with preventing a full-scale offensive in the region, home to some 3.5 million people, a third of whom are children. 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.