ANTAKYA, Turkey: Syrian government forces backed by their Russian allies have stepped up their bombardment of rebel-held territories in northwest Syria, killing at least six civilians, according to local activists.
The air raids and shelling on Saturday came a day after Russia rejected a Turkish call for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province, where a major government assault aimed at recapturing the last rebel stronghold in the country is seemingly imminent.
The attacks targeted areas in southern Idlib province and in the north of neighbouring Hama province, in what is seen as the biggest escalation over the past week.
One hospital in the village of Hass in southern Idlib was destroyed by a barrel bomb dropped from a helicopter.
Local activists told Al Jazeera that six civilians died in the bombardment, including one child.
According to Abd al-Kareem al-Rahmoun, a representative of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group operating in rebel-held parts of Syria, the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in northern Hama province was targeted with more than 150 shells.
The shelling killed two men and wounded five others, including two children.
At least 26 people in rebel-held areas have been killed since the beginning of the month, the White Helmets said.
Rebel factions in northern Hama province responded to Saturday’s attacks with rocket fire and shelling of areas under government control, including the city of Salhab further west. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), there were no reported casualties.
On Friday, rebel shelling killed 10 people, including five children in the Christian-majority town of Maharda in western Hama province, SOHR reported.
Mohamad Haj Ali, commander of the First Coastal Division, which is part of the moderate opposition formation al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (NLF), told Al Jazeera that despite the escalation, the battle for Idlib has not started yet.
“[The offensive was delayed] because of Turkish pressure on the Russians. We still hope for a diplomatic solution,” he said, adding, however, that he expects the offensive to be launched in the coming weeks.
If this happens, its first stage will target northern Latakia province and the area around the town of Jisr al-Shaghour in southern Idlib, he said.
In a separate development, clashes erupted between Syrian troops and Kurdish security forces known as Asayesh in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northern Hasakah province.
At least 13 members of the government forces were killed and seven Asayesh fighters, according to SOHR.
Although Qamishli is fully controlled by Kurdish forces, Damascus has retained control of a military base in its outskirts.