Airstrikes kill 9 in rebel-held northwest Syria

Syrian opposition activists say airstrikes on rebel-held areas in the country’s northwest killed at least nine people

BEIRUT -- Airstrikes on rebel-held areas in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib killed at least nine people on Sunday, an opposition war monitor and a paramedic group said.

Syrian troops launched a four-month offensive earlier this year against the country’s last opposition stronghold, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants. The government offensive forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. A fragile cease-fire halted the advance at the end of August, but in recent weeks it has been repeatedly violated.

Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad said his forces will soon retake Idlib. In an interview with a Russian TV station, Assad said that they are now giving civilians some time to leave the area.

The Syrian Civil Defense said five people, including three women, were killed in the village of Mallaja while four others were killed in airstrikes on the northern outskirts of the town of Saraqeb, a major town on the highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.

The highway has been closed since 2012, when rebels captured several towns on it. Reopening the highway was the main aim of the government offensive that began April 30.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said six people were killed in Mallaja. It added that six other people were killed in the province, including two fighters.

In an area controlled by Turkey in the neighboring province of Aleppo, opposition activists said Turkey-backed fighters opened fire on a group of protesters who were demanding a suspected car bomber be executed.

The Observatory said the protesters tried to storm a police station in the town of al-Bab, and that one protester was killed. The protesters were reportedly calling for authorities to execute a man detained on suspicion of setting off a car bomb in al-Bab on Saturday. That blast killed 19 people.

Turkey's Defense Ministry said the suspect detained in connection to Saturday’s bombing was a member of the main Kurdish militia, according to Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency.

Several explosions have hit Turkey-controlled parts of northern Syria over the past month, killing and wounding scores of people. That's since Turkey began a military operation into northeastern Syria against Kurdish fighters, following President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria.

The Turkish invasion has aimed at pushing Kurdish fighters away from the border. Those Kurdish fighters had been key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

Turkey-backed opposition fighters had previously taken control of parts of Aleppo province, including the towns of al-Bab and Afrin, in military offensives in 2016 and 2018, respectively.