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Syria presses assault amid fears over mass displacement

ALEPPO: Residents of a residential neighborhood on the edge of this northern Syrian city facing Kafr Hamra return to their homes to check the damage caused by fighting between regime forces and rebel fighters yesterday. – AFP

BEIRUT: Syrian troops pressed an offensive yesterday on the country’s last major rebel enclave where the mass displacement of civilians is sparking fears of a humanitarian catastrophe. Around 900,000 people have been forced from their homes and shelters in less than three months, leaving huge numbers to sleep rough in the thick of winter. The United Nations said that half a million among them were children, some of whom have died of exposure in snow-covered camps.

The UN has warned that the crisis could worsen if no ceasefire is reached to facilitate the relief effort. “Over the past four days alone, some 43,000 newly displaced people have fled western Aleppo where fighting has been particularly fierce,” UN spokesman David Swanson told AFP. Since the start of February, the displacement figure was a staggering 300,000, he said. The wave of displacement is the biggest since the start of the civil war nearly nine years ago. It is largest exodus of civilians since World War II.

“The violence in northwest Syria is indiscriminate. Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit,” the UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, Mark Lowcock, said on Monday.

‘Only option’
“The biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st Century will only be avoided if Security Council members, and those with influence, overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first,” Lowcock added. Russia, the main foreign broker in Syria, has vetoed countless resolutions on the conflict. “The only option is a ceasefire,” Lowcock said.

The latest violence yesterday left at least two civilians dead. One was killed in a Russian air strike and the other in regime shelling. A member of regime-backer Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was killed in Aleppo province in a rocket strike, Iranian state media reported.

According to Save The Children, seven children – including a baby only seven months old – have died from freezing temperatures and bad living conditions in the camps. “We’re worried that the death toll will increase given the absolutely inhumane living conditions that women and children are finding themselves in,” the charity’s Syria director Sonia Khush said.

Burning furniture
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the temperature dipped to minus 7 Celsius in some areas last week. “Those families who could take some of their belongings as they fled from their homes are reportedly burning whatever they could find, including pieces of furniture and whatever can be spared to stay warm for a short while,” it said. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for the establishment of humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians to prevent further loss of life.

There was no sign of any let-up in the violence, however, with President Bashar Al-Assad promising on Monday that government forces would press on with their offensive. “The battle for the liberation of the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib continues, regardless of all the hot air coming out of the north,” Assad said, in reference to warnings by Turkey. In recent weeks, Syrian troops and allied forces backed by Russia have stepped up their offensive against jihadists and their rebel allies in Idlib and the neighboring province of Aleppo. They have reconquered swathes of Idlib as well as key areas that have secured the strategic M5 highway connecting the country’s four largest cities as well as the entire surroundings of Aleppo city for the first time since 2012.

Key mountain
“We have won a victory over the fear they tried to instill in our hearts… but we are fully aware that this liberation is not the end of the war,” Assad said in a televised speech. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces made fresh gains in western Aleppo province yesterday. “Regime forces are trying to push towards the Sheikh Barakat mountain,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring organization.

If they capture the area, government forces will control a vantage point over vast swathes of land in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, including areas where tens of thousands of displaced people live in sprawling camps. Deadly incidents between government forces and rebel-backer Turkey have raised tensions near Syria’s northern border, prompting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to threaten Damascus. Turkey, which already hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country with more than 3.5 million people, is unwilling to open its borders to a new wave. – AFP

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