Smoke billows from a building during shelling by government and allied forces, in the town of Hbeit in the southern countryside of rebel-held Idlib province on Friday. Photo: AFP

In the latest violation of an eight-month-old truce, Syrian regime forces and their Russian allies killed 12 civilians in the country’s northwest on Friday, according to a UK-based war monitor.

Four women were among the 12 people killed in shelling and airstrikes on several towns and villages in Idlib and neighboring Hama province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The attacks have been continuously escalating for four days,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

An AFP correspondent saw intense bombardment of southern Idlib on Friday, when warplanes dropped bombs that sent huge plumes of grey smoke billowing into the sky.

Idlib and nearby areas have been protected from a massive regime offensive since a September agreement signed by Damascus ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.

However, the region, currently harboring about three million people, has come under increasing bombardment since the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) took full control of it in January.

The escalation has killed 200 civilians and displaced nearly 140,000 since February, according to the UN.

The Observatory said shelling and airstrikes in recent days have primarily targeted positions and bases belonging to former Al-Qaeda affiliate HTS and other militant groups.

The UN says schools and medical centers have also been targeted.

State news agency SANA on Friday said the Syrian army “intensified” operations against HTS in Idlib and Hama, striking armored vehicles and rocket launchers.

The AFP correspondent saw vehicles loaded with mattresses, carpets and household appliances leaving villages in southern Idlib en route to areas closer to the Turkish border.

Residents said increased attacks have emptied some villages in southern Idlib of their residents.

“We’ve all left,” said Abu Ali, a 40-year-old man who fled the Idlib village of Kafr Ain four days ago.

“No one is left in the village because of the shelling,” he told AFP.

– with reporting by AFP

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