Syria war: Arms depot blast in Idlib province kills 67
At least 67 people were killed and 33 injured by an explosion at an arms depot in rebel-held northern Syria on Sunday, rescuers and activists say.
The blast in the village of Sarmada, in Idlib province, caused the collapse of two five-storey buildings.
More than 50 of the dead were civilians. The others were members of a jihadist alliance linked to al-Qaeda, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
The depot is reported to have been run by an arms dealer who works with HTS.
The alliance is the dominant armed opposition force in Idlib, which is home to some 2.9 million people, including a million who have fled other rebel-held parts of Syria.
The Syria Civil Defence, whose volunteer first responders are commonly known as the White Helmets, said on Monday morning that it had completed its search and rescue operation in Sarmada's Bab al-Hawa Square after 22 hours.
The bodies of 67 people had been recovered from beneath the rubble of the collapsed buildings, while 17 people had been pulled out alive, it added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, put the death toll at 69 and said it included 17 children and 14 women.
Most of the civilians were displaced people from the central province of Homs.
The cause of the initial blast is not yet known.
However, HTS's news outlet Iba cited one of the alliance's security officials as criticising the arms dealer for storing powerful explosives in a residential area.
Abu Abdul Malik said it showed "a total and clear disregard for the lives of people" and vowed to take action to regulate the activities of arms dealers.
Meanwhile, pro-government media report that the Syrian military has sent more reinforcements to areas bordering Idlib province ahead of a major ground offensive on the rebel stronghold.
On Sunday, the newspaper al-Watan cited military sources as saying troops had arrived in the northern countryside of Hama province in preparation for an assault, with the ultimate aim to recapture the provincial city of Idlib.
President Bashar al-Assad has indicated that Idlib will be his next target, after forces loyal to him retook the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus and the south-western provinces of Deraa and Quneitra earlier this year with the help of Russian air strikes and Iranian-backed militias.
United Nations humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland appealed, on Thursday, for talks between the warring parties to avoid a "civilian bloodbath" in Idlib.
"It is bad [there] now," he told reporters in Geneva. "It could be 100 times worse."
Mr Egeland said it would be very hard for the UN and its partners to feed and provide shelter for the large numbers of people who might be displaced by an offensive, and that he had asked Turkey to keep its border open to refugees.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that his country was finalising preparations to create safe areas on the Syrian side of the border. It has already set up military observation posts in Idlib to monitor a "de-escalation" zone agreed with Russia and Iran.