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Activists: Syrian gov't shelling of rebel enclave kills 11

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces on Thursday shelled villages in the last rebel holdout in the country’s northwest, killing at least 11 people and sending hundreds fleeing, activists and rescuers said.

The shelling hit a residential area in Ablin, a village in Idlib province where opposition fighters and militants still hold territories. Rescue workers, known as White Helmets who operate in opposition areas, said a mother and her child and at least five other civilians were among those killed in the village where at least 10 shells landed.

At least six others were injured in the same village, while nearly 40 shells fell in nearby villages, a statement from the White Helmets said. Opposition activists and aid workers said the shelling has been ongoing for a few days, escalating since Monday.

Mark Cutts, the U.N.’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, tweeted his condemnation on Wednesday of what he called the “big escalation in artillery shelling by Syrian government forces in southern Idlib.” He said the shelling has caused civilian casualties and hit near a camp for displaced people, destroying a compound used as a school.

Mohammed Halaj, an aid worker who coordinates between local groups and the U.N. emergency responses, said at least 110 families — over 600 people — have fled the shelling. Those fleeing would head to camps for the displaced if the violence continues, he said.

The White Helmets claimed the shelling aims to drive people from their land at harvest time.

The rebel-held enclave straddling Idlib and Aleppo provinces is home to 4 million people, over 2.7 million of them displaced and mostly living in camps and temporary shelters. Many have escaped repeated rounds of military offensives and fighting.

Turkey and Russia, who support rival parties in Syria’s 10-year conflict, had reached a cease-fire deal in March 2020 that stopped a Russian-backed government offensive on Idlib.

But military operations have not totally ceased, with limited violence breaking out occasionally as government forces try to make piecemeal advances in the enclave dominated by the al-Qaida-linked militant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Reports on activist-operated media sites said Thursday that among those killed in the shelling was the spokesman of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, known by his nom de guerre Abu Khaled al-Shami. It was not possible to officially confirm if he was among the 11 killed.

The Associated Press