IDLIB: Panicked residents run following an air strike by pro-regime forces in the nothwestern Syrian city of Idlib yesterday.-AFP

IDLIB: Regime air strikes on Syria’s last major opposition bastion killed 18 civilians yesterday, a war monitor said, a day before a ceasefire is due to take hold. Six children were among the dead in the northwest province of Idlib, where a fresh ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey is expected to go into effect after midnight, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Air strikes on the city of Idlib killed seven civilians, while separate raids on two towns near the provincial capital killed 11 others, the Britain-based war monitor said. In Idlib city, the bombardment hit near a cultural centre, according to the Observatory and an AFP correspondent in the area.

Scores of students, many of them crying, ran from the site of the blast in panic, the AFP correspondent said. The bombardment surprised residents in a city that has been relatively free from the near-daily attacks that have hit the province’s flash-point south, the correspondent added.

Less than 10 kilometers (six miles) away, regime air strikes hit a market in the town of Binnish, killing seven, according to the Observatory. The market was mostly reduced to rubble, as thick white smoke from the strikes created a fog, according to an AFP correspondent there. He saw men carrying what the apparently lifeless bodies of two children from the scene, as women and children wailed. One woman pressed two children to her chest as she screamed for help, he said.

Volunteer rescue workers, meanwhile, carried bodies to an ambulance, and sifted through rubble searching for trapped civilians, he added. South of Idlib city, raids hit the area of Al-Nerab, killing four. “All of these areas where far away from bombardment during the latest (regime) offensive but today, regime warplanes,” have returned, said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman. A southern strip of the jihadist-dominated Idlib region has come under mounting bombardment in recent weeks, displacing more than 300,000 people in December alone, according to the United Nations.

The Damascus government has repeatedly vowed to retake Idlib, which is run by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate. A ceasefire announced in late August was supposed to stop Russia-backed regime bombardment of the region after strikes killed some 1,000 civilians in four months. But the Observatory says sporadic bombardment and clashes continued, before intensifying in the past month.

Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people including over 115,000 civilians since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests. Meanwhile, residents of Syria’s last major opposition bastion yesterday welcomed a UN vote renewing cross-border aid to the country, as relief groups condemned restrictions to the program which is helping millions.

The United Nations Security Council on Friday voted to extend humanitarian aid to Syria, including to some of the most needy in the northwestern region of Idlib. But under pressure from Syrian regime ally Russia it scaled back the program that allows the UN and its partners to deliver aid using border crossings not controlled by the Damascus government. The council agreed to prolong the assistance for only six months instead of renewing it for a year as it had done previously. It also decided that the aid will enter Syria through just two crossing points along the Turkish border, instead of four.

A key entry point for aid along the Iraq border which had been instrumental in chaneling aid to around 1.3 million people in northeastern Syria was scrapped. Despite the restrictions, Syrians in Idlib breathed a sigh of relief. “I was so pleased when I heard the news this morning,” said Abu Abdo, an unemployed father of four. The 36-year old said he, like millions of Idlib residents who rely on cross-border aid entering from Turkey, depends on humanitarian assistance for his and his family’s survival.

“I live off this assistance,” he told AFP, saying continued aid deliveries would mean that he would not “die from hunger”. Mohammad Abu Said, a 29-year-old father of two, echoed a similar sentiment. Friday’s vote, he said, was a positive development for a province housing three million people, nearly half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country. “Most of us (in Idlib) rely on humanitarian aid because there is no work or income,” he said. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Friday four million Syrians are being supported by cross-border operations, 2.7 million of them in the northwest and another 1.3 million in the northeast.

‘Distressed and dismayed’

Syria’s almost nine-year war has killed more than 380,00 people and displaced over half of the country since 2011, with the latest wave fleeing a deadly regime assault on the opposition stronghold of Idlib. Heightened attacks on the jihadist-held region since December have displaced more than 300,000 people. Regime air strikes on the Idlib region on Saturday killed six civilians, including four from the same family, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor.

The uptick in violence in recent weeks has sparked warnings from international aid groups of a new humanitarian tragedy and Friday’s vote to scale down vital aid deliveries drew angry reactions. “Save the Children condemns the scale back,” the UK-based charity said in a statement. “The border crossings serve as a lifeline to more than four million civilians inside Syria-including two million children-the majority of whom cannot receive vital aid by any other means,” it said.

“There is no excuse for limiting the resolution’s scopeā€¦ when attacks on civilian infrastructure continue” said the charity’s Inger Ashing. The International Rescue Committee on Friday said it “is distressed and dismayed at this turn of events”. It especially condemned the closing of the Iraq-Syria crossing, which it said “will immediately halt critical medical supplies and disrupt at least half of the healthcare response in northeast Syria”.

In December, Russia and China vetoed a European proposal to extend for a year the aid entering Syria through three points on the borders with Turkey and Iraq. To avoid another Russian veto, the security council on Friday adopted the down-sized program. -AFP