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Airstrikes on area under opposition control in northwestern Syria killing nine

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Airplanes believed to be Syrian or Russian bombed a key rebel-held city in northwestern Syria on Wednesday, killing at least nine civilians, residents and rescuers said, intensifying airstrikes on the last major opposition stronghold.

The air strikes have targeted Maarat al-Numan, where tens of thousands have fled over the past two weeks for fear of an imminent attack by Russian-backed Syrian forces.

Residents said heavy air strikes, believed to be Syrian and Russian, targeted other villages and towns in Idlib. A strike on a market in the city of Saraqeb also injured and severely damaged a major residential area.

Earlier on Wednesday, airstrikes targeted Syrian armed opposition positions in an area near a Turkish military post in the village of Sher Maghar, on the border between Hama and Idlib provinces, where Russian-backed government forces are launching a fierce attack on opposition forces, local activists and a senior Turkish security source said.

A senior Turkish security source told Reuters that heavy clashes were taking place between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters about 500 meters from the Turkish observation post.

“The conflict is very close (to the Turkish position) and it is violent,” the source said. Syrian forces bombed opposition positions. ” But the source said the Turkish soldiers were unharmed.

The Syrian government’s continued assault on the last stronghold of the armed opposition has reduced the distance between Russian and Turkish troops in northern Syria to the lowest level on the ground. Russia and Turkey support two warring sides in the Syrian civil war, but the two countries share a ceasefire.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said after talks with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow on Tuesday that Russia and Turkey had agreed on steps to tackle militants in northwestern Syria and “normalize the situation” there.

Presidents Putin and Erdogan held talks in Moscow after Syrian government forces cordoned off opposition fighters and a Turkish military post in the area in the town of Murk this month.

A senior armed opposition official in contact with the Turkish military said Russian special forces had been stationed in positions around the besieged Turkish military post in Murk to prevent any further escalation of the situation if the Syrian army launched an attack.

The official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters the Russian presence around Murk was aimed at defusing tensions between the Syrian regime and the Turks.

He said the Russians would protect the Turkish observation post and at the same time prevent the Turkish army from responding to any attack.

Turkey has previously responded to attacks on some of its positions in Idlib and northern Hama.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Russian air force, regained territory from the armed opposition this month in the northwest, its last major stronghold in Syria.

Talks between Assad’s main ally Moscow and Ankara, which supports some opposition factions, have not been able to end the fighting in Idlib.

Turkey set up 12 monitoring sites in northwest Syria under an agreement with Moscow and Tehran two years ago.

Another opposition source in the area said a Turkish army team was patrolling the highway linking Aleppo to Latakia on a reconnaissance mission as part of preparations for a new observation post.

The deal, signed by Turkey and Russia in September, called for reopening traffic on two strategic highways linking Aleppo, Hama and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, two of Syria’s most important routes before the war.

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