The UN has expressed deep concern about an escalation of hostilities in north-western Syria after at least 11 people were reportedly killed in Russian air strikes on rebel held Idlib province.

Nine were killed when warplanes dropped bombs next to a market outside Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, rescuers said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that it was the deadliest Russian attack this year.

Another two people were killed in an air strike near Idlib city, it said.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian military, whose air campaign in support of the Syrian government has been crucial in turning the tide of the 12-year civil war in its favour.

But the Syrian defence ministry said its troops had co-operated with the Russian air force in an operation that targeted “terrorist headquarters and warehouses” in Idlib and “eliminated dozens of terrorists”.

The strikes were retaliation for attacks that had killed civilians in government-held Hama and Latakia provinces, it added.

The Syrian Observatory said a total of six civilians had been killed in drone and artillery attacks by jihadist and rebel groups since Wednesday.

Fifteen civilians and four fighters had been killed in Russian air strikes and government artillery attacks over the same period, it added.

The White Helmets, whose first responders operate in opposition-held areas, said most of those killed near Jisr al-Shughour were workers and farmers at a vegetable market that was next to the site targeted in the Russian strike.

Mohammed said he had been loading tomatoes and aubergines onto vehicles at the market when a bomb exploded.

“I looked over and saw my neighbour screaming next to me. I carried him [to safety],” he told AFP news agency. “Some of the [vehicle] owners were injured and others were killed.”

The White Helmets said children were among the wounded and that the death toll might rise because several people were in a critical condition.

“Attacks on civilians in Syria continue unabated and unresolved, leaving Syrians trapped in a never-ending cycle of tragedy and despair,” it warned.

More than half a million people have been killed in the conflict that erupted after President Bashar al-Assad cracked down violently on peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Idlib is the last remaining opposition stronghold and is home to 2.9 million displaced people, many of whom are living in dire conditions in camps.

In March 2020, Russia and Turkey brokered a ceasefire to halt a push by the government to retake Idlib. That led to an extended lull in violence, but sporadic clashes, air strikes and shelling continue.

BBC/Adebukola Aluko

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