Airstrikes on Rebel-held Syrian District Kill 9 Civilians

Beirut (AP) -- 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 neighborhood with tank and artillery fire in conjunction with the airstrikes, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, reported.

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

The local Civil Defense search-and-rescue team, also known as the White Helmets, said the airstrikes hit one of its centers in al-Waer, wounding one 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.

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 came one day after presumed Russian or Syrian government aircraft bombed the rebel-held city of Idlib and marked the second major violation of a month-old cease-fire between the government and rebels in as many days.

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

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

U.N.-sponsored talks on Syria are scheduled to start in Geneva on Feb. 20 and invitations to the discussions will be issued "in the coming days" — not on Wednesday as expected, United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. He said U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura and his team are continuing discussions and the invitations will go out once they reach "a position of comfort."

De Mistura had said invitations would be issued around Feb. 8 and if the Syrian opposition wasn't united, he would select the delegation and ensure that it is as inclusive as possible. Dujarric declined to say whether talks were still going on with opposition groups or whether de Mistura is choosing the opposition delegation.

Late in the day, the Pentagon said two U.S. airstrikes near Idlib last week killed 11 al-Qaida operatives, including one with ties to Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida leaders. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said an airstrike Friday killed 10 operatives in a building used as an al-Qaida meeting site and a strike the next day killed Abu Hani al-Masri, who U.S. officials say oversaw the creation and operation of al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. Davis said al-Masri had ties to bin Laden and to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the top leader of al-Qaida when bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in 2011.

Turkey, meanwhile, is in talks with Russia to coordinate 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 3 kilometers (2 miles) of one another, on opposite sides of al-Bab.

Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkish troops had reached the center 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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