BEIRUT (AP) — Rebels shot down a Syrian military helicopter in northern Syria on Tuesday, killing its crew members in a fiery crash, while the government kept up its relentless bombing campaign on the opposition-held region, with an airstrike in which seven civilians died, activists and news reports said.
The violence in Idlib province came as government troops moved closer to capturing the last rebel-controlled section of a strategic highway linking southern and northern Syria, which would bring the road under the full control of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces for the first time since 2012.
With support from Russia and Iran, Syrian troops have been on the offensive for weeks in Idlib and parts of nearby Aleppo provinces, unleashing a humanitarian crisis with 700,000 people fleeing their homes and surging north toward the Turkish border.
Nearly a quarter of the three million people in Idlib and nearby areas have fled. Terrified families piled onto trucks and other vehicles, clogging muddy rural roads. Hundreds of civilians have died in the latest fighting, according to the United Nations (UN).
The Syrian helicopter gunship was shot down by insurgents amid fighting near the village of Nairab as rebels, backed by Turkish artillery, tried to retake it after losing it last week, according to opposition activists.
Associated Press (AP) video showed the helicopter spiralling from the sky and breaking up as fire poured from its fuselage, just before it crashed. Two bodies could be seen on the ground.
Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported that the pilot and two others aboard were killed, while opposition activists reported that only two crew members were on board.
Hours later, a Syrian airstrike hit the city of Idlib, the provincial capital, killing seven people and wounding nearly two dozen, according to the Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike killed 12 civilians, half of them children, and wounded about 30. Opposition activists said the airstrike on Idlib, home to about 800,000 people, was carried out in response to the downing of the helicopter.
The fighting recently escalated with two separate clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops, killing 13 on each side, including five Turkish soldiers who were killed on Monday.
Turkey, a main backer of the rebels, has rolled armoured vehicles into Idlib, apparently to prevent government forces from reaching the border areas with Turkey.
The country is home to some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and is concerned about more streaming in.
Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told AP that Ankara has as many as four observation posts and two military positions in Syrian government-controlled territory, warning that Turkish soldiers were under orders to retaliate forcefully to any attacks.
Akar said in the interview that Turkey would not vacate any of its 12 observation posts in Idlib.
“In the event of any action against them, they have been given instructions to retaliate even more powerfully,” he said.