BEIRUT — Dozens of civilians were killed Thursday when government airstrikes on a crowded marketplace in northwestern Syria killed at least 50 people and wounded more than 100, as fighting between government and rebel forces intensified in the region.
The market in the town of Tel Rifaat was struck by an airstrike, according to an activist group and a video posted online, in what appeared to be one of the worst mass killings of civilians in Syria in years.
Civilians were in the market to buy food for the holiday season, according to the activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Air attacks on towns in northwestern Syria, as well as in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel enclave east of Damascus, have killed hundreds of civilians this year. As rebel resistance has crumbled, government forces have moved in, seizing areas that had until recently been controlled by rebel groups like the Nusra Front, and by al-Qaida’s local branch, the Fatah al-Sham Front.
The Syrian government called the assault on Tel Rifaat a “criminal and failed terrorist aggression,” saying that an activist group was responsible. State media said “dozens” of militants had been killed. The Observatory put the death toll at more than 100, with about 60 of the dead members of the Islamic State.
Idlib province has been a prime target for the Syrian government, which has positioned its troops in Tel Rifaat and is trying to expand its control over the province. Turkish, Russian and Syrian forces have all been carrying out military operations in the area for months, and Turkey’s military announced Wednesday that it had expelled Turkish and Syrian opposition forces from the nearby town of Marea.
The skirmishes have been the latest part of a broader contest in Syria, pitting U.S.-backed forces allied with Turkey and against groups supported by the Russians and Assad, and led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States. Since the U.S. withdrew from Syria in December, American forces have remained in the area and have targeted an Islamic State-affiliated militia called the Khorasan group, about 60 miles west of Tel Rifaat.
Late on Wednesday, an Islamic State member appeared in a video with a written statement confirming responsibility for a suicide bombing that took place in a village known as Maarat Shabqadah on Monday, which killed dozens of civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.