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Turkish-backed rebels down Syrian helicopter in Idlib


ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Turkish-backed Syrian rebels shot down a government helicopter west of Aleppo in Syria's northwestern Idlib region, where violence and displacement has spiked in recent weeks, Turkish and Syrian state media said on Friday.

A rebel military source and eyewitnesses told Reuters Russian jets had been targeting areas in the countryside west of Aleppo earlier on Friday, but they evacuated back to the city after the helicopter was downed.

"One of our military helicopters was hit by an enemy missile in the western countryside of Aleppo...where armed terrorist organizations supported by Turkey are deployed, and this led to the fall of the helicopter and death of its crew," Syrian state news agency SANA cited a military source as saying.

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 nearly nine years of war.

The Syrian Observatory war monitor said on Friday that Turkey had deployed around 6,500 soldiers to reinforce existing units in northwest Syria, as well as some 1,900 military vehicles since early February.

The helicopter was struck as it flew over the front lines after leaving Aleppo, which is controlled by the government, Turkish state-owned Anadolu news agency said. Rebels downed another government helicopter on Tuesday near the town of Nairab, to the south.

Syrian state-run al-Ikhbariya TV meanwhile broadcast what it said was its crew driving for the first time into Aleppo via the M5 international highway that has been a focal point of President Bashar al-Assad's latest military campaign.

Ikhbariya said the Damascus to Aleppo roadway that runs through Idlib province was fully under the control of Syria's army.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Eric Knecht; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

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