Syrian strikes kill more than 20 civilians, activists say

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces have carried out a series of air raids and shelled several areas in the country's northwest in an apparent attempt to halt a rebel advance, killing at least 20 civilians, activists said Thursday.

State-owned news agency SANA said troops were targeting "terrorists," a term the government uses to refer to all of its armed opponents.

Islamic insurgents, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, have been gaining territory in Idlib province in recent weeks, seizing the provincial capital of the same name, the town of Jisr al-Shughour and an important military base.

Experts have said government losses are indicative of battle fatigue and a new coordination among the most powerful rebel groups.

In a show of force, a video was posted by a major Islamic rebel group showing hundreds of fighters in a military-style parade attended by the rebel group commander, purportedly near the capital, Damascus.

The Army of Islam, headed by firebrand Zahran Alloush, mostly operates in a Damascus suburb. The video is allegedly filmed in eastern Ghouta, the group's stronghold near the Syrian capital.

In the video, which appeared on Twitter accounts associated with the group, hundreds of fighters march in formation as a speaker extolls their achievements, including training on use of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Several tanks roll by as commanders watch, seated under a canopy.

"We will keep on preparing... and we will fight against the enemies of God," Alloush tells the fighters at the end.

Islam Alloush, a spokesman for the group, told The Associated Press that there were 1,700 fighters in the new group featured in the video, which he said will deploy to join those already on the front-lines.

"Military parades by armies have the effect of weakening the morale of the enemy and lifting the morale of the fighters," he said.

Also Thursday, Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij visited the government's main ally, Iran.

"Our views are identical on the upcoming steps to deal with terrorism," al-Freij told reporters in Tehran, without elaborating.

In northern Syria, rebels advanced on Mastoumeh, one of the few remaining government garrisons in Idlib province on Wednesday. Overnight airstrikes targeted rebels north and south of the provincial town of Jisr al-Shughour, which recently fell to the insurgents, and in and around the town of Saraqeb.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday at least 23 civilians, including five children, were killed in those airstrikes. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said the government aims to halt the advance toward Mastoumeh. The successive airstrikes are "attempting to terrorize the rebels, but they end up killing civilians," he said.

Also Thursday, Syrian state media said "terrorists" shelled a district in the government-controlled part of Aleppo, killing at least seven civilians. Overnight and on Wednesday, government air raids in the city and its suburbs killed 11 civilians, including at least one child, opposition activists said.


Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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