Syrian regime troops reportedly enter besieged city of Saraqeb
Syrian regime forces were besieging the rebel-held city of Saraqeb in southern Idlib province on Thursday amid an intensification of regime and Russian bombing of Idlib province.
Some reports said that the regime troops were already in the city, which has been evacuated by the vast majority of its inhabitants with just a few dozen opposition fighters remaining behind.
Saraqeb has long been an opposition stronghold and it occupies a strategic location on the junction between the M5 highway which links Damascus to Aleppo and the M4 highway which connects Aleppo to Latakia.
The Syrian Step News Agency reported that a woman and a child were killed on Thursday in regime bombing of Idlib province and opposition-held areas of Aleppo province, and that seven people were injured, three of them children.
Five people were also killed in regime bombing of Jadariya in western Aleppo province on Wednesday night.
Turkey on Thursday urged Russia to pressure the regime to cease its advances on Saraqeb.
"We expect Russia to stop the regime as soon as possible," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in the Azerbaijani capital Baku.
The regime's offensive has violated previous de-escalation agreements and led to clashes between Turkish and Syrian regime forces on Monday in which more than 20 Turkish and regime soldiers died. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the regime's advance.
Cavusoglu said Turkey and Russia were closely coordinating after the clashes, adding that a delegation from Russia was due to visit Turkey for further talks.
"Our target on the ground in Idlib is not Russia," he said.
"Who carried out the attack there? It is the regime. Who attacked our soldiers? It's the regime... Who harassed our observation posts? It is the regime."
A regime officer told Russia Today on Thursday that the regime was also besieging Taftinaz military airport in Idlib province on three sides.
Turkey has recently established a military post in the airport and has previously warned the regime not to attack any of the 12 observation posts it maintains in Idlib province.
An opposition military source told The New Arab’s Arabic-language service that Turkish troops had fired on regime soldiers outside the airport.
Turkish forces also reportedly set up jamming equipment in the airport to prevent regime aircraft from communicating with each other.
Also on Thursday, Russia said that a number of its military specialists had been killed in Syria, without providing any further details.
A statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed "terrorists" - in a probable reference to the hardline Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham - for the deaths, also saying that Turkish specialists had been killed.
"Terrorists... ramped up their attacks. The number of dead and wounded among Syrian servicemen and civilians outside the de-escalation zone has grown into the hundreds. Russian and Turkish military specialists have died tragically," the statement said.
Russia has declared ceasefires and de-escalation zones in Syria before but has violated them arbitrarily numerous times. In January it announced a ceasefire in Idlib only to break it a few days later.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment to journalists, referring all questions to the foreign and defence ministry. Foreign ministry spokespeople declined immediate comment.
Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent Russian newspaper, reported this week that four officers from the FSB security service had been killed in Syria in early February. However, it said that the officers could have been killed by hardline Assad regime elements, rather than rebels.
Agencies contributed to this report.