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." The government refers to all of its armed opponents as terrorists.
Islamist 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.
Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij was meanwhile paying an official visit to Iran, Syria's main ally.
"There must be a stance to evaluate ways to confront terrorism, particularly after the recent escalation," al-Freij said in a press conference with his Iranian counterpart. "Our views are identical on the upcoming steps to deal with terrorism," he said, without elaborating.
On Wednesday, the rebels advanced on Mastoumeh, one of the few remaining government garrisons in Idlib province.
The overnight strikes in Idlib province targeted rebels in areas north and south of the 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. 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."
Activist groups on Wednesday said government helicopters had dropped explosives-filled barrels containing chlorine on Saraqeb. The reports could not be independently verified.
Also on Thursday, the Syrian state media said "terrorists" shelled a district in the government-controlled part of Aleppo, killing at least seven civilians. Overnight and earlier Wednesday, government air raids in the city and its suburbs killed 11 civilians, including at least one child.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.