Turkish-backed rebels down Syrian helicopter in Idlib

Syrian civilians flee from Idlib in rain toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey Thursday Feb. 13 2020

Syrian civilians flee from Idlib in rain toward the north to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey Thursday Feb. 13 2020

Turkey's military has sent additional arms and troops to Idlib, on its southern border, to confront a push by Russia-backed Syrian government forces to retake the country's last major rebel stronghold after almost nine years of war.

But the shoot down was perceived as merely the most dramatic Turkish retaliation in a series of escalating, deadly clashes as Turkish ground forces attempt to block the Syrian government from wiping out the last major rebel stronghold in Syria's Idlib province.

"At approximately 13:40, one of our military helicopters was hit by a hostile missile in the western countryside of Aleppo", SANA said.

"The statement about the shelling of the Syrian government troops by units of the Turkish Armed Forces and the losses among the Syrian military was not true", Russian military said. Rebels downed another government helicopter on Tuesday near the town of Nairab, to the south.

The Turkey-backed National Liberation Front rebel group claimed responsibility in a statement posted on the Telegram app.

Syrian regime forces have pressed with a blistering assault on the shrinking rebel pocket in Syria's northwest since December.

Among them were three Iranians as well as 12 Syrian and foreign members of Tehran-backed militias.

Turkish media blamed the attacks on rebels but the Observatory said Turkish troops had fired rockets at the aircraft over the village of Qaminas, southeast of Idlib city.

Turkey did not claim responsibility. Turkey, which backs Syria's opposition, has been deploying equipment and troops in the region, to halt the Syrian military's advances.

The Observatory said eight civilians, including three children, were killed in the bombardment on Friday, adding that five died in Russian raids near the nearly deserted city of Atareb.

The violence there has triggered the largest wave of displacement in the nine-year conflict, with 800,000 people fleeing since December, according to the United Nations. Among them, some 82,000 people are sleeping rough in sub-zero temperatures.

With the base recaptured, government forces are now within 2km of Urum al-Kubra and 5km from Atareb, according to the monitor.

European members of the UN Security Council called Friday for an immediate end to the Idlib offensive to save lives.

The unprecedented exodus has sparked alarm in neighbouring Turkey, which fears an influx across its border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened the Syrian government in recent days, saying the offensive violates a 2018 deal with Russian Federation meant to prevent a broad military operation.

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