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Deadly airstrikes continue in Syria as date for UN-sponsored talks set

A series of airstrikes on an opposition-held district in the Syrian city of Homs, presumably carried out by Russia or Syria, killed at least nine civilians on Wednesday, local activists said.

9 civilians killed in Homs Wednesday, and at least 24 died around Idlib on Tuesday

The airstrikes in Homs and Idlib marks two major violations of the month-old ceasefire between the government and rebels. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

A series of airstrikes on an opposition-held district in the Syrian city of Homs, presumably carried out by Russia or Syria, killed at least nine civilians on Wednesday, local activists said.

Pro-government forces shelled the city's al-Waer neighbourhood with tank and artillery fire in conjunction with the airstrikes, the Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network, reported.

Government forces have kept the opposition-held neighbourhood under siege since 2013, according to the Washington-based Siege Watch. An estimated 75,000 people are trapped inside.

The local civil defence search-and-rescue team, also known as the White Helmets, said the airstrikes hit one of its centres in al-Waer, wounding a volunteer. The government and its allies have regularly targeted hospitals and first responder positions in the course of the Syrian civil war, which is approaching its seventh year.

Attacks in Idlib

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that nine civilians were killed in the raids.

Homs is Syria's third-largest city. Government forces retook most of the city in 2014, effectively ending an anti-government protest movement that had gripped Homs since 2011.

The al-Waer assault comes one day after presumed Russian or Syrian government aircraft bombed the rebel-held city of Idlib and marks the second major violation of a month-old ceasefire between the government and rebels in as many days.

The Observatory said 24 civilians were killed in seven strikes across Idlib Tuesday. The Idlib Civil Defence said 26 people were killed.

The Dec. 30 ceasefire was brokered by Russia and Iran, both of which are key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which supports the opposition. Each side has accused the other of repeated violations.

Peace talks scheduled

UN-sponsored talks on Syria are to start in Geneva on Feb. 20. Invitations to the discussions will be issued "in the coming days," United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday, adding that UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura and his team are continuing discussions and the invitations will go out once they reach "a position of comfort."

Turkey is meanwhile in talks with Russia to co-ordinate troop movements around northern Syria to avoid any encounter with the Syrian military, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman told private NTV television Wednesday.

Syrian government forces and Turkish-backed opposition fighters are in a race to seize the town of al-Bab from the Islamic State group.

Turkish and Syrian forces have so far avoided direct conflict, despite hostile rhetoric between Erdogan and Assad. The twin offensives put the two forces within kilometres of one another, on opposite sides of al-Bab.

Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkish troops had reached the centre of al-Bab and were fighting to secure it, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said the Turkish force was still at the town's outskirts.

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