AMMAN: Russian planes have pounded the east Idlib town where a helicopter went down with 165 airstrikes over seven days, destroying the city’s infrastructure and displacing 80 percent of its population.

Saraqeb, a suburb of Idlib city, had a population of 53,000 before the intense bombings began on August 1. Today, “only 10,000 people remain,” Osama Bareesh, the director of the Saraqeb Civil Defense told Syria Direct on Monday.

  Civil Defense Idlib info graphic on the bombing campaign. Photo courtesy of Civil Defense Idlib.

On the evening of August 1, hours after the Russian helicopter went down, local news sources reported that warplanes dropped barrels filled with chlorine gas on Saraqeb. Russian state media claims the helicopter was shot down, but the exact fate of the chopper remains unconfirmed.

“An Mi-8 transport helicopter has been shot down by ground fire in Idlib province after a delivery of humanitarian aid to the city of Aleppo. Three crew members and two officers from the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria were on board,” said the Russian Defense Ministry in a statement on August 1.

The same day, the Syrian Network for Human rights reported that 33 people suffocated because of the poisoned gas barrels.

“It is important to note that these bombings are nothing but revenge for the Russian plane that fell about 18km from Saraqeb,” Civil Defense director Bareesh said.

“The regime is demanding that people stand by its side and pressure the armed factions to hand over the bodies or it will destroy the city.”

Russian state media did not comment on the airstrikes, but one pro-Assad media outlet acknowledged the relationship between the increase in airstrikes and the helicopter crash.

“The Russian Air Force has recently intensified their airstrikes over the Idlib Governorate in response to Jaysh Al-Fateh’s attack on a Russian military chopper,” Al-Masdar news reported on August 8.

Al-Masdar is referring to a wave of airstrikes that began to blanket the city last Friday. For three consecutive days, planes shelled Saraqeb, reportedly with vacuum missiles and cluster bombs, destroying the city’s market, hospital, blood bank, oven, water mill, electricity grid and its only two Civil Defense cars, Bareesh said.

 Destroyed buildings in Saraqeb. Photo courtesy of Mekdam Basbous.

“After most public facilities were hit, we were unable to do any work in the city,” said Bareesh.

Thousands of residents left Saraqeb Friday night, after the Civil Defense ordered people to evacuate. They fled to neighboring villages, set up camps in nearby farms, or paid $600 to get smuggled into Turkey, said Um Mohammed, a Saraqeb resident who fled the city with her family on Friday after their house collapsed during the one of the bombings.

They went to Sarmada, a town 50km to the north near the Turkish border, which “isn’t safe,” Um Mohammed says, but the family had no other option at the time. For now, there is no plan for what to do next.

“Now my children stand fearfully and watch the sky, looking for planes, which they learned can kill them.”

Terror texts

Last Friday, an estimated 2,000 residents still in Saraqeb received messages demanding the return of the five downed crew members.

“We received text messages threatening us to hand over the bodies of the Russian crew that crashed on August 1,” Mohammed Musfara, a spokesman for the Saraqeb Local Council, told Syria Direct from Saraqeb.

 Text messages demanding that residents return the bodies of the Russian crew. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Musfara.

It was not immediately clear how many residents received the text messages. Musfara received both, the first of which reads: “People of Saraqeb, militants have the bodies of the Russian pilots. Help us to return them if you do not want pain.” The second reads: “People of Saraqeb, the militants are using you as a shield.”

The regime sent the messages through mobile operators Syriatel and MTN Syria, which do not normally have service in Saraqeb, said Musfara.

One local party is claiming possession of the bodies.

“The factions gave us the five bodies of the Russian crew members,” the General Foundation for Prisoners’ Affairs, which on its Facebook page calls itself “a civil humanitarian organization that archives prisoner cases and works with all parties to supervise negotiations and exchanges,” said in a Facebook statement on August 2, the day after the helicopter went down.

Two days later, the group demanded the release of regime and Hezbollah-held prisoners, a nation-wide lifting of sieges and the immediate delivery of “genuine” humanitarian aid to these areas in exchange for the five crew members.

At the bottom of its August 4 statement is a picture of what the foundation says are ID cards of the Russian crew; proof that they are holding the bodies.

‘We offered what we could’

On Sunday the Local Council of Saraqeb announced that it had suspended operations and formed an emergency-response room in coordination with the Civil Defense, paramedics, Free Police and local activists.

“We distributed roles among each other to manage the crisis and offer what we could to people—first aid, medical care and aid for displaced people,” said Local Council spokesman Musfara.

The council says it is coordinating with rescue organizations throughout Idlib province to secure funding for basic aid, such as tents and sleeping pads for residents who fled to farms and other open areas, said Musfara.