Airstrike in northwest Syria kills 15 ahead of Moscow summit

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Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets

In this photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Syrian White Helmet civil defense workers carry a victim next to a destroyed house that was hit by Russian airstrikes, in Maaret Musreen village, in Idlib province, Syria, Thursday, March 5, 2020. An airstrike on a rebel-held village in northwestern Syria early Thursday. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

BEIRUT – An airstrike on a rebel-held village in northwest Syria hit a poultry farm where several displaced families were sheltering early Thursday, killing at least 15 people including children while wounding several others, opposition activists said.

The activists blamed Russian warplanes for the strike on Maaret Musreen village, which is home to thousands of internally displaced people.

The strike came hours ahead of a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the escalation in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, which comes amid a monthslong Russian-backed Syrian government offensive there.

As the meeting got underway, Turkey announced that another Turkish soldier was killed in an attack in Idlib on Thursday, raising the number of Turkish soldiers killed in the past 36 hours to three.

Nearly a million people have been displaced by the fighting in Idlib — Syria's last remaining rebel stronghold — and hundreds have been killed. Many of the displaced have fled north toward the sealed border with Turkey.

Turkey and Russia are the two main power brokers in Syria and each supports rival sides in the nine-year conflict.

Violence worsened in Idlib in recent weeks, with Turkey sending thousands of troops into the area to support Syrian insurgents holed up there. But Erdogan hasn’t been able to halt Syrian President Bashar Assad's offensive, which began in early December.

Syrian and Turkish troops have engaged in deadly battles, leaving at least 59 Turkish soldiers dead since the beginning of February as well as scores of Syrian soldiers. Direct fighting between Turkish and Syrian government forces had previously been rare throughout the war.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday's airstrike hit a poultry farm used as a settlement for internally displaced Syrians, killing 15 people including women and children. It said 18 others were wounded.

The opposition's Syrian Civil Defense group, also known as the White Helmets, blamed Russian warplanes for the strike as well. They said 14 people were killed, including five women and two children.

A young man who said he survived the attack told The Associated Press he was inside a building with his father when the airstrike hit. He suffered a minor injury to his face. He said he called out and searched for survivors, and that an ambulance arrived at the same time as his father made it out of the destroyed building.

Paramedics were seen removing debris before dawn Thursday, using flashlights to reach some of the victims buried under the rubble. Chickens could be seen in the vicinity as rescue operations took place, according to Associated Press video.

Photos of the strike posted by the Civil Defense showed paramedics using a bulldozer to remove a ceiling that had apparently collapsed on top of people. Civil Defense said it had finished recovering bodies from under the rubble by Thursday morning.

Step news agency, an activist collective, said 16 people were killed, including five children, and 18 others were wounded.

Discrepancies on casualty figures are not uncommon in the immediate aftermath of attacks in Syria.