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Feb 27, 8:53 AM EST

Jets pound northwest Syria as Geneva talks continue



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BEIRUT (AP) -- At least 11 people were killed in airstrikes on Syria's rebel-held Idlib province on Monday, opposition activists said, in the latest spasm of violence to mar U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition.

Separately, there were unconfirmed reports that a top al-Qaeda official was killed in an airstrike, also in Idlib.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist groups, said Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abdulrahman, the deputy to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have been killed in a U.S. airstrike on an unmarked sedan on Sunday evening. It cited reports circulating on Jihadist social media accounts.

The northwestern province falls largely under the control of an al-Qaida-linked rebel coalition. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by fighting are living as refugees there.

Images of the vehicle purported to have been carrying Abdulrahman, known more widely by his nom de guerre Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, showed damage to the passenger compartment of the beige Kia sedan but no damage to the engine block. The roof was blown open on the right side of the vehicle.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a top al-Qaida official was killed in a drone strike, but could not confirm it was al-Masri.

Al-Masri was a close affiliate to late al-Qaida founder Osama Bin Laden and was once the chairman of the organization's management council, according to a Washington Post report citing leaked US intelligence documents dating back to 2008.

Iranian authorities are believed to have jailed him following the 9/11 attacks before releasing him in a prison exchange with al-Qaida in Yemen in 2015.

A senior official at a rival jihadist faction in northern Syria urged caution over the reports, saying other top al-Qaida officials in Syria had staged their own deaths only to defect from the organization. The official asked not to be identified because of rivalries between the various factions.

There was no immediate comment from the Pentagon.

The activist-run Baladi News network published footage of rescuers searching for victims in the rubble of a block destroyed in presumed government or Russian airstrikes on Monday, in the town of Areeha in northwest Syria.

The Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group said it had counted 15 fatalities.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least seven civilians and four other unidentified victims had been killed. It blamed the attack on government warplanes.

The strikes come as an opposition delegation gears up to meet Monday with U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura in Geneva to continue talks aimed at resolving Syria's six-year-old war.

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