ANKARA – Airstrikes on rebel-controlled northwest Syria killed at least 16 people Tuesday, including two students and two teachers, opposition activists said, as government forces captured a town considered a symbol of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
The capture of Kafranbel was another blow to insurgents after government gains over the past three months. Kafranbel was a major opposition-held town that gained attention in the early years of the Syrian conflict because of weekly anti-government protests that included humorous English-language banners carried by protesters.
The banners were initiated by anti-government journalist Raed Fares who was shot dead in the town along with his friend Hammoud al-Juneid in November 2018. Fares was a harsh critic of Islamic militants who control much of Idlib.
The government controlled Syrian Central Military Media said Kafranbel was captured late Tuesday after fierce fighting with al-Qaida-linked militants. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said the town was taken by the government after punishing bombardment from the air and ground.
The violence came as Turkey's president announced that a Russian delegation would arrive the following day to resume talks aimed at easing tensions in the northwest Idlib region. The area is the country's last rebel-controlled stronghold and the Syrian government's military campaign there, backed by Russia, has created a humanitarian catastrophe with nearly 1 million people displaced from their homes since Dec. 1.
Most of them are now crowding areas close to the border with Turkey, living in camps, shelters, abandoned homes and in open fields. It is the largest single displacement of Syria's war, now in its ninth year.
In response to the upsurge in violence, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. has launched a revised appeal for $500 million to assist at least 1.1 million people in need. He said discussions are under way with Turkey double the number of trucks crossing the border with humanitarian aid from 50 to 100.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said no consensus was reached for a four-way meeting next month between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Turkey meant to address the crisis. He added, however, that Russia's Vladimir Putin may still come to Turkey next week for a bilateral meeting. Moscow has so far not confirmed a March 5 visit by the Russian president to Turkey.
Tensions have been running high between Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides of the war in Syria. The Syrian government offensive has shattered a fragile cease-fire agreement that Turkey and Russia reached in 2018 and Turkey has threatened military action unless Syrian forces retreat to positions they held before the advance by the end of February.
"Russia supports Syria at the highest level," Erdogan told reporters before departing for a visit to Azerbaijan. “Even if they deny it, we have evidence. We are forced to be in this fight.”
Turkish officials had reported small progress in two previous rounds of Turkey-Russia meetings but said the results were not satisfactory.
Turkey had set up a dozen observation posts as part of the 2018 agreement, many of which are now behind Syrian government lines. Ankara also sent thousands of additional troops into Idlib in recent weeks and has frequently engaged in military exchanges with Syrian troops.
At least 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes this month during the Syrian government's push on the last rebel stronghold.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a news conference at the State Department Tuesday that the Syrian government's offensive “only heightens the risk of conflict with our NATO ally, Turkey," adding that the U.S. was working together with Turkey “on seeing what we can do together.”
He called for a permanent cease-fire, saying “the regime will not be able to obtain military victory.”
The fighting appeared to intensify, however, with dozens of airstrikes reported Tuesday.
Opposition activists and a war monitor said at least 16 people were killed in Idlib province Tuesday. They included two students and two teachers who were killed in Idlib city when a school was struck with a cluster bomb-filled rocket, and 10 civilians who were killed in airstrikes on the town of Maarat Misreen in Idlib province. The deaths were reported by the Observatory and Idlib-based opposition activist Hadi Abdullah.
The Observatory and Idlib-based opposition activist Taher al-Omar said insurgents captured the village of Nairab late Monday after intense fighting with government forces that had captured the village earlier this month. The village is close to the town of Saraqeb where two major highways in the country meet.
To the south of Nairab, Syrian troops captured two new villages raising to 10 the number of areas captured in the province since Monday, according to state media.
The capture of Maaret Tamater and Maaret Seen paved the way for government forces to storm Kafranbel.
In Damascus, one civilian was killed and two others were injured by bombs planted in two cars near Umayyad Square in the Syrian capital Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said. It was not immediately clear who the target was.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writesr Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.