AMMAN: Dozens of airstrikes pounded rebel towns across Idlib province on Monday, local officials and Civil Defense members told Syria Direct, as Moscow-sponsored peace talks began despite an opposition boycott.
At least 20 airstrikes hit Saraqeb in central Idlib province Monday morning, killing an estimated 11 civilians in a local vegetable market and “destroying” the city’s only hospital, Osama Bareesh, director of the local Civil Defense branch, told Syria Direct.
Saraqeb falls at the intersection of the two major roadways that run through Idlib province.
The strikes in Saraqeb came just hours after an airstrike killed five residents in the town of Maasiran, roughly 15 kilometers to the south, Oubeidah Thikra of the local Civil Defense branch, told Syria Direct on Monday.
Monday’s attacks on rebel-held territory—which the Civil Defense members allege were conducted by Russian warplanes—came as delegates arrived to Russian-sponsored peace talks that began on Monday in Sochi.
The talks, which intend to bring together representatives of “all segments” of Syrian society, are being boycotted by the Syrian opposition’s primary negotiating body.
The High Negotiations Committee announced it would not attend the conference via its Twitter account on Friday. “Our focus remains [on] delivering a credible political transition for Syria through UN-led Geneva talks,” the body said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said other representatives will attend in their place, but did not elaborate.
“We thought members of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee would take part in the conference,” Zakharova said via a statement posted to the Hmeimim Russian military base’s Facebook page on Saturday. “If they don’t wish to participate, others will do so,” she said.
Delegates from Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Syrian government and the UN are also expected to attend.
The four airstrikes that hit Saraqeb’s vegetable market on Monday followed a barrage of more than 80 airstrikes on the city since Sunday morning in what Civil Defense director Bareesh called “the most intense” bombardment since Syrian and Russian warplanes began daily bombing of the area more than two weeks ago.
Saraqeb’s vegetable market after Monday’s airstrike. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Civil Defense.
Neither Syrian nor Russian state media reported airstrikes in Idlib province on Monday.
Those injured in airstrikes on Saraqeb were initially taken to the city’s only hospital, the Oday Hospital, Ahmad al-Asaad, a doctor at the hospital, told Syria Direct.
But within hours, a suspected Russian warplane conducted a strike on the hospital, said al-Asaad, who was present during the attack. The airstrike caused two severe injuries to medical staff and “extensive damage” to the hospital, he added, forcing a complete cessation of services.
All patients were transferred to hospitals in Idlib city, about 20 kilometers northwest of Saraqeb, al-Asaad said.
As bombs continued to strike Saraqeb throughout the day on Monday, Civil Defense director Bareesh said the city was “completely empty.”
Most residents of Saraqeb, home to about 35,000 residents and an additional 12,000 displaced persons, fled their homes since the increase in attacks began Sunday morning, Muthana al-Muhammad, president of Saraqeb’s local council, told Syria Direct. They are now staying “in tents on the city’s outskirts, on the main roads and under the trees,” he said.
The displaced Saraqeb residents join an estimated 200,000 already displaced from their homes in Idlib and parts of nearby Hama and Aleppo provinces since pro-government forces launched an offensive on the area in mid-December, according to a January 19 UN statement. The offensive began despite Idlib’s designation as a “de-escalation zone” in deal brokered by Russia and Iran last May.
Saraqeb lies about 20 kilometers northwest of the Abu a-Dhuhur military airport, which pro-government forces recaptured from rebel control earlier this month as part of its ongoing offensive.
‘Like an earthquake’
Airstrikes hit the vegetable market in Saraqeb just after local members of the Syrian Civil Defense finished their search-and-rescue operations in Maasiran.
Remains of the building in Maasiran destroyed by Monday’s airstrike. Photo courtesy of Muath Abbas.
A warplane launched an airstrike on a northern district of the town before dawn on Monday, flattening a residential building and “killing five members of the same family, a woman and her four daughters,” Thikra, director of the local Civil Defense, told Syria Direct.
Neighborhood residents injured in the airstrikes are still receiving treatment as of Monday afternoon local time, Thikra says, but all are in stable condition.
“The thing that frightens us residents the most is that the bombing happened at night while everyone was sleeping,” Muath Abbas, a citizen journalist who witnessed Monday’s airstrike from his nearby home, told Syria Direct. “Residents can’t do anything to protect themselves at night.”
Abbas said that the airstrike hit the residential neighborhood while all was quiet, at roughly 3:30AM local time. The sound of the blast echoed throughout the district “like an earthquake had struck.”
Photos posted by the Syrian Civil Defense on social media Monday show volunteers pulling bodies from the rubble before dawn using headlamps and reflective gear.
“It took the Civil Defense roughly three hours to retrieve the bodies due to the substantial damage,” said local director Thikra.
“The warplanes are still overhead and have not yet left the skies,” he told Syria Direct on Monday morning. “We’re afraid of another strike.”