The Syrian regime has launched a major aerial operation on a rebel-held town near the capital, effectively ending a local truce. Rebels claim the airstrikes were retaliation for the execution of a government pilot.
Regime airstrikes in the rebel-held town of Jeiroud left at least 20 civilians dead on Saturday, a day after militants captured and killed a government fighter pilot, according to a monitor and rebel sources.
A rebel spokesperson said al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, was responsible for executing the pilot.
“The strikes against civilians are in retaliation against the execution of the pilot by al-Nusra Front,” said Said Seif al-Qalamoni of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which operates in the town alongside the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
The pilot parachuted into the opposition-held area 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Damascus after his aircraft malfunctioned during a training mission, the government said in an official statement.
Damascus vowed revenge for the “appalling crime” of executing the serviceman.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the regime’s airstrikes marked the first bombardment of Jeiroud in at least two years.
“Prominent figures in Jeiroud have had a local truce with the regime for at least two years, and neither fired on each other,” SOHR chief Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP news agency.
Syria has witnessed an uptick in violence since a US-Russia brokered “cessation of hostilities” between government forces and rebels has all but collapsed.
More than 250,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the conflict erupted in 2011, when government forces violently cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protesters calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
UN-backed peace talks remain elusive, although the organization’s Syria envoy, Steffan de Mistura, said in June that he hoped they could resume in July.
ls/jm (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)