Beirut - Syrian regime forces and insurgents exchanged a barrage of rockets on Sunday in the country’s northwest that killed at least 13 people and hit a regime-run hospital, activists and government media reported.
The violence strained a fragile months-old truce negotiated between Russia and Turkey that averted a regime offensive on Idlib and surrounding areas, the last major rebel stronghold in the country. The region is home to some 3 million people, including many displaced from other battles in the eight-year-old civil war.
The head of the local hospital in government-held Massyaf said insurgent shelling killed a rescue worker and four other people. Maher Younis told the regime-run Ikhbariya TV that five children who were arriving at the hospital and two dentists were wounded. The network aired footage of broken glass at the entrance of the hospital.
One of the wounded told Ikhbariya from her hospital bed that the missile landed when she and her mother were arriving to do some medical tests.
“We only felt a big bang. I was wounded in my hand and my mum in her leg,” she said, without giving her name.
Hospitals and civilian infrastructure have frequently come under fire over the course of the war, and rights groups say government forces have targeted medical facilities on several occasions. The government denies targeting such facilities, which it says the rebels use for military purposes.
The rebels do not have precision missiles, and mainly rely on homemade or outdated arms.
The insurgents’ fire came amid heightened tensions following days of regime fire on villages and towns on the edge of the enclave.
Opposition-allied first responders known as the White Helmets said regime shelling killed at least eight people, including one child, in Saraqeb and Nairab towns in eastern Idlib. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at nine. The activist-run Shaam news agency said the shelling in Saraqeb hit civilians who were visiting a local regime office.
Russia, which backs the government of President Bashar Al Assad, and Turkey, which supports opposition factions, reached the truce deal in September. It set up a demilitarized zone on the edge of the rebel-held enclave which was to be cleared of militants.
But since the deal, Al Qaida-linked militants have expanded their presence in the enclave, seizing land from other armed groups.
The government so far has kept up limited military pressure. Experts say government forces are focused on opening key highways that pass through Idlib, linking northern Syria to the capital, Damascus. Opening the highways was one of the key provisions in the September deal.