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Airstrikes on a marketplace kill 40 Syrian

Airstrikes on a marketplace in Idlib province Sunday killed at least 40 civilians, including women and children, as Syrian forces stepped up attacks on rebels a day after losing a key town.

There were fears the death toll would mount from the bombing raids on Darkoush, a rebel-held town near the Turkish border, which also wounded dozens of people, a monitoring group said.

The attacks came after a coalition of rebel groups overran the nearby town of Jisr al-Shughur Saturday, tightening their grip on the northwestern province less than a month after capturing its capital.

“At least 40 civilians were killed in regime airstrikes on a market in the town of Darkoush. Among the dead were nine women and eight children,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Jisr al-Shughur was one of the regime’s last remaining strongholds in the northwestern province, and its fall has left government-held territory elsewhere in neighboring Latakia and Hama provinces open to new attack.

Overnight and Sunday, government warplanes pounded Jisr al-Shughur with several dozen airstrikes as fighting raged on the ground south of the city, the Observatory said.

Also, anti-regime activists said late Sunday that the Jabal Zawiyeh region of Idlib was targeted by a chlorine gas strike.

The clashes south of Jisr al-Shughur came after government forces launched a failed bid to rescue at least 40 government soldiers.

State television said regime forces had attacked an area by the southern entrance to the town, “killing a group of terrorists,” but made no mention of any captured soldiers.

State media said government troops had redeployed outside Jisr al-Shughur to “avoid casualties among innocent civilians.”

“Army units carried out night raids against a number of military positions infiltrated by armed terrorist groups in the area surrounding Jisr al-Shughur,” the official SANA news agency reported.

It charged that “terrorist groups carried out a horrific massacre of more than 30 civilians, mostly women and children, after entering Jisr al-Shughur.”

But it gave no further details of the alleged killings, and the Observatory said it had received no reports of any massacre of civilians.

The Observatory Saturday said its sources had seen the bodies of at least 60 regime loyalists in the streets of Jisr al-Shughur after the battle for the town.

It added that at least 23 prisoners had been summarily executed by regime forces before their pullout.

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front posted photographs on Twitterof what it said were the bodies of the murdered prisoners.

With the seizure of Jisr al-Shughur, regime forces now hold just a few remaining areas of Idlib province, and analyst Thomas Pierretsaid that the city’s capture marked a “turning point.”

“It’s the end of the loyalist counteroffensive that began in spring 2013,” said Pierret, a lecturer on contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh.

However, he noted that while the regime was “in a position of weakness, that doesn’t mean it’s going to fall tomorrow.

“In 2012, the regime survived despite experiencing greater disasters,” Pierret added.

Tellingly, the “Army of Conquest” rebel coalition that has been on the offensive in Idlib inspired rebel groups in Aleppo Sunday to declare an alliance, borrowing the same name for their informal group.

A surprise rebel attack on government positions was also reported in the western Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, with the regime responding with a series of air strikes.