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A general view of the refugee camp near Atimah village, Idlib province, Syria September 11 ,2018. Photo by Khalil Ashawi/R...

Warplanes strike hospital in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib

BEIRUT — Warplanes struck a hospital in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on Sunday, knocking it out of service, as government forces continued to bombard the rebel-held region following insurgent attacks last week.

The latest fighting has killed dozens of people and displaced tens of thousands in Idlib and nearby rebel-held areas, who fled to safer regions further north. It’s the heaviest fighting in months, and has raised fears the government may launch a wider offensive to retake the country’s last major rebel stronghold.

Attacks on hospitals and clinics in the past have preceded major government offensives on rebel-held areas, including the 2016 attack on rebel-held parts of the northern city of Aleppo and last year’s offensive on eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian warplanes were behind the attack on the main hospital in the rebel-held village of Hass. The opposition-run activist collective Baladi News also reported the airstrike on the hospital, adding that it was not clear if there were casualties.

The Observatory said that since the early hours of Sunday, Russian warplanes carried out more than 50 airstrikes on Idlib and nearby Hama province. It said government and Russia bombardment killed at least six people on Sunday in different rebel-held areas.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry meanwhile said that two Turkish soldiers were wounded on Saturday when mortar shells fell near one of their positions in Hama province.

Turkey and Russia, who back opposite sides in Syria’s eight-year conflict, brokered a truce in September that averted a government offensive on Idlib. But the truce has been repeatedly violated, and parts of it have yet to be implemented, including the withdrawal of al-Qaida-linked militants from the front lines. Two major highways that cut through rebel-held areas were supposed to be reopened before the end of 2018 but remain closed.

The latest fighting erupted on April 30, three days after al-Qaida-linked militants launched attacks on the positions of government forces in northern Syria, killing 22 soldiers and pro-government gunmen.

“Any action taken by the Syrian Arab Army is legitimate since there has been no commitment to agreements reached,” a Syrian security official was quoted as saying by the government-run Syrian Central Military Media.

Pro-government media said insurgents shelled villages near the front lines, killing one civilian.

State news agency SANA quoted an unnamed Syrian military official as saying that insurgents are preparing to launch an offensive on government-held areas, warning that such an attack “would mark the beginning of their end.”

Government troops and insurgents have been reinforcing their positions in recent days in a sign that violence is expected to continue as Muslims mark the holy month of Ramadan beginning Monday.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.