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Syrian troops step up attacks on rebel-held areas

Russia has waged a punishing aerial campaign against Syria’s armed opposition.

Syrian government forces and their Russian allies have stepped up attacks on rebel-held areas, killing at least 23 civilians east of Damascus and striking at hospitals and residential buildings in the northwestern Idlib province, opposition activists claim.

The assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria, has intensified in recent weeks but reached a new ferocity after militants shot down a Russian Su-25 near the town of Saraqeb over the weekend.

Russia has waged a punishing aerial campaign against Syria’s armed opposition since intervening in the civil war on the side of its ally, President Bashar Assad, in 2015.

The al Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee, which is the strongest militant group in Idlib, said its fighters shot down the Russian jet and killed its pilot after he ejected from the plane and landed on the ground.

Russia’s Defence Ministry confirmed the attack, saying preliminary information indicated the plane was shot by a portable ground-to-air missile in an area held by al Qaeda militants.

Government forces have also stepped up operations against rebel-held suburbs near Damascus known as eastern Ghouta.

Opposition activists said government airstrikes killed at least 23 civilians in the area on Monday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said waves of airstrikes hit at least five neighbourhoods in the eastern Ghouta, the only remaining rebel stronghold near the capital, Damascus.

The town of Arbeen was struck by 15 airstrikes, and airstrikes killed six people in Hazeh.

The activist-run Ghouta Media Centre also reported that 23 were killed. The Observatory says at least 70 have been wounded and that the number of casualties is likely to climb as rescue operations are under way.

An estimated 400,000 people live in eastern Ghouta, which is besieged by government forces.

In Idlib, a hospital in the town of Kafranbel was bombed early on Monday, according to the activist-run Edlib Media Centre and the Observatory. Another hospital, in Maaret al-Numan, was struck three times late on Sunday and put out of service, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which runs the facility.

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