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BEIRUT -- A suspected Syrian government airstrike on a market in a northwestern rebel-held town killed 13 civilians on Monday while Turkish artillery shells landed near a school in a Kurdish-held town, killing at least nine, including eight children, activists said.

The violence is part of rising tension in Syria's north, along the border with Turkey. Syrian government troops have renewed their push to reclaim the last opposition stronghold in Idlib province while Turkey, which sees Syrian Kurdish fighters as an existential threat, has been widening its military operations there to push them away from its borders.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike hit a popular market in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, killing 13 civilians and wounding 18. The opposition-run Aleppo Media Center also put the death toll at 13 while the Syrian Civil Defense, a team of first responders known as White Helmets, said nine civilians, including two women, were killed.

Different casualty tolls are common in the chaos of the civil war. Over the weekend, fighting between Syrian government forces troops and insurgents in Idlib -- the last opposition stronghold -- killed dozens on both sides.

The Idlib attack comes amid renewed fighting around the final rebel bastion in northwestern Syria that is crammed with civilians displaced from elsewhere in the country and hardened radical Islamist fighters. In the past week, the Syrian army has been slowly pushing into the territory, recapturing villages and inflicting dozens of casualties.

Tucked away in the northwestern corner of Syria, Idlib province and some surrounding areas are the last pockets still held by the rebel factions that have fought Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces since 2011.

Over the past two years, the province has become a dumping ground for unwanted combatants and civilians from other parts of the country. People were moved to Idlib aboard now-infamous green buses from other provinces once the Syrian army had retaken them.

The province was the scene of major clashes in the spring and summer. The United Nations estimated that 500 people were killed before cease-fires were brokered under Russian auspices in August.

The escalation in the hostilities threatens to trigger a new humanitarian crisis in an area already teetering on the brink of disaster. The majority of the region is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of extremist Islamist fighters, that has reinvented itself several times under different names in an attempt to distance itself from al-Qaida.

Since Nov. 25, the Syrian army has been slowly advancing from the south into Idlib, retaking half a dozen villages, backed by Russian and Syrian warplanes that pound the area. Many of the civilians there have already been displaced multiple times by the fighting.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said at least 69 fighters belonging to the Syrian army, its allies and the rebels were killed over the weekend.

All of northern Syria hangs on a complex relationship between Turkey and Russia, which dictates how offensives unfold. Ankara and Moscow have struck agreements and cease-fires in the northwest of the country, as well as the northeast, where swaths of territory are controlled by Kurdish forces once allied with the United States.

Turkey and Russia agreed to work to clear the Kurds from the border after Turkey halted its own offensive in the northeast, leaving Ankara beholden to the Russians and less able to resist Moscow's moves around Idlib.

Meanwhile, the Observatory and the Kurdish news agency Hawar said Turkish shells landed in the town of Tal Rifaat, to the north in Aleppo province, near a school. The Observatory said nine people were killed, while Hawar put the death toll at 10. Both said eight children were killed in the shelling.

Information for this article was contributed by Sarah Dadouch of The Washington Post and by Bassem Mroue and Daria Litvinova of The Associated Press.

A Section on 12/03/2019

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