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Reports of chlorine gas attack as Idlib province pounded by Russian, Syrian airstrikes

Reports of chlorine gas attack as Idlib province pounded by Russian, Syrian airstrikes
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ISTANBUL — Russian and Syrian warplanes pounded rebel-held areas of Syria’s Idlib province Monday in raids that struck hospitals, collapsed an apartment building and included a possible chlorine gas attack, residents and activists said.

The onslaught — which began late Sunday and targeted multiple towns and cities — appeared to be in retaliation for the rebel downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fight jet on Saturday.

The stepped up attacks against rebels were part of an increasingly complex web of military action and politics in northern Syria.

Rebels factions are seeking to hold onto some of their last strongholds in Syria. Meanwhile, neighbouring Turkey has opened an offensive against Syrian Kurdish militias that are backed by the United States as a proxy force against the Islamic State.

On Saturday, militants downed the Russian plane using a man-portable air-defence system, or MANPADS, according to Russia’s Defence Ministry. It was a rare instance of rebel fighters successfully bringing down either Russian or Syrian aircraft.

We are extremely worried that terrorists have man-portable antiaircraft missile systems in their possession

“We are extremely worried that terrorists have man-portable antiaircraft missile systems in their possession,” Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a briefing with journalists in Moscow on Monday. Russia often refers to groups opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as terrorists.

“This is a huge danger to all states,” Peskov added.

But the latest bombardment by Russian and Syrian forces was one of the worst suffered by the opposition stronghold in weeks. Civil defence forces said they were still digging through the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Syrian emergency services search for members of four families reportedly stuck under the rubble of a six story building that collapsed following Syrian government air strikes on Idlib on February 4, 2018. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

At least 22 people were killed by airstrikes in Idlib province since Saturday, the civil defence forces, also known as the White Helmets, reported. At least one hospital, in Maaret al-Numan, was forced to close following multiple strikes, the Syrian-American Medical Society said. A five-story building in Idilb city also collapsed, activists said.

In the city of Saraqeb, near where the fighter jet was downed, doctors and local residents said that 11 patients were hospitalized late Sunday with symptoms that indicated exposure to chlorine. The reports could not be independently verified.

Syrian government forces have been accused in the past of targeting opposition-held areas with chlorine bombs.

“The bombs were falling on our residential areas, which were packed because it was the evening,” said Maysara al-Askar, an activist in the town of Kafr Nabl in Idlib province. “I was in the marketplace last night just before they bombed it. I heard the explosions as I was walking out my front door.”

Another strike, however, on Kafr Nabl’s surgical hospital was reported by doctors and activists Monday morning.

Fighters loyal to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaida affiliate, control much of Idlib province, but many residents have resisted their rule. The group claimed responsibility for the downing of the Russian jet Saturday.

Russia’s Defence Ministry on Monday said that the pilot, Maj. Roman Filipov, “ejected and landed near Tell Debes held by the terrorists.”

“He kept firing his service-issue weapon at militants until he died,” the statement said, adding that when the militants continued to advance, he “blew himself up with a grenade.”

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