Civilians flee heavy air strikes and shelling in fighting along the area bordering Hama in the south
Syrian government forces claim victories in Idlib offensive
Syrian government forces claimed a string of victories in Idlib on Sunday as civilians fled heavy shelling and air strikes in a two-week-old offensive to retake the country's last rebel-held province.
The government news agency Sana said government forces had captured the town of Atshan and four other villages in fighting around the southern part of Idlib bordering Hama province.
The likely target of the offensive is a military airport near the city of Abu Duhor that has been under rebel control for more than two years.
Samer Allawi, an officer with Jaish Al Nasr, one of the rebel groups fighting in Idlib, said the government’s forces were gaining ground by employing a scorched-earth policy.
“They were able to capture two villages. The reason for progress of the regime is Russian air support. We are fighting Russia and Iran, not [Syrian president] Bashar Al Assad,” Mr Allawi said, referring to Iran-backed militia forces, including Lebanon's Hizbollah, that have aided the Syrian government in its fight.
Mr Allawi said rebels had shot down a Russian helicopter near the city of Rastan, south of Hama city.
A media activist in the southern Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun said the government’s advances had been exaggerated, and that despite the heavy shelling and air strikes by Russian and Syrian government planes, the rebels were largely holding their ground.
The activist, who asked to be identified only as Othman, said the Russian and Syrian air strikes were targeting civilians.
“Warplanes don't bomb villages that are located at the front line, they bomb villages that are quite far away from the front line,” he said.
Residents of Idlib have faced frequent shelling and air strikes since the rebels first gained significant territory there in 2012, a year after the uprising against Mr Al Assad began. Many have been fleeing the latest offensive, with their belongings piled high on pickup trucks.
"We were the target of strikes more than once — we couldn't stay," Abu Ahmed, a man in his 60s, told Agence France-Presse. "I don't know how to say how I feel, leaving my land and home at my age. We are leaving without even knowing where we're headed."
Othman said most of those fled headed towards areas in the north. "There isn't a specific destination for them to go to and most of those who leave their houses because of the battles sleep in the open,” he said.
“The northern areas of Idlib are already hosting huge numbers of displaced. There are many big camps in the area; however, their ability to host new displaced persons is limited.”
Some people have put up tents in the Maaret Al Numan in central Idlib.
"We escaped for the sake of the children. They were terrified by air raids and strikes," Abu Khaled, a father of four, told AFP. He said his family had already fled once, from Hama province to Idlib, where they lived in a camp for the displaced.
The Assad government stepped up offensives on rebel-held areas in December after ISIL was largely defeated in separate government and US-backed offensives.
In the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, at least 14 civilians were killed and 43 injured in air strikes and shelling by government forces on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights said.
The monitoring group said air strikes on Harasta killed eight, while six died in shelling of Misraba, Kfar Batna, Nashabiyeh and Outaya.
"The regime intensified its shelling and air strikes on Saturday after Fatah Al Sham and Islamic factions attacked its positions near Harasta" on Friday, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory.
Jabhat Fatah Tahrir Al Sham, a rebel group linked to al Qaeda, is also the main force in Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the rebel coalition that dominates Idlib.
The situation in Syria will be discussed during talks in Paris this week between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, a source in the French presidency told AFP.
Idlib borders Turkey and the Turkish military has had a presence there since October as part of a deal between Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey to “de-escalate” fighting.
Hayat Tahrir Al Sham has rejected the de-escalation agreement and has been excluded from both Russian and United Nations-sponsored peace talks.