Syria: ‘80,000 people’ flee Idlib as Russian-backed regime forces bombard rebel stronghold

Turkey’s president warns country cannot handle fresh wave of refugees fleeing airstrikes

Chiara Giordano
Sunday 22 December 2019 23:43 GMT
Maaret al-Numan on Sunday in Idlib province
Maaret al-Numan on Sunday in Idlib province (AFP)

Turkey has warned it cannot handle a fresh wave of refugees from Syria as heavy airstrikes forced 80,000 more civilians to flee their homes.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces have pushed deeper in their offensive as they attempt to reclaim the northwestern province of Idlib – the last remaining major region still held by rebels opposed to president Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, said more than 80,000 people were currently on the move from Idlib to Turkey due to the bombardments.

Thousands of people have already crossed into the neighbouring country seeking safety since the campaign began in April.

Mr Erdogan warned it was inevitable Europe would see a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis unless it helped stop violence in the region.

He added Turkey was doing everything possible with Russia to stop the bombardments in Idlib.

At least one civilian was killed on Sunday as shelling and airstrikes hit rebel-held villages in the province, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence.

Several civilians were also reportedly killed after Russian jets hit a convoy of cars as people attempted to flee the city of Maarat al-Numan.

Rescuers said at least eight people were killed, including three women and two children.

Russia and the Syrian army, which is loyal to Mr Al-Assad, both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants.

The army said it had gained more than 20 villages and hilltops and was coming close to one of 12 Turkish observation posts in the northwest, set up as part of a deal with Moscow and Tehran in 2017 to avert large-scale fighting in Idlib.

Residents in the area said many villages were now deserted in a campaign that has displaced more than 500,000 people, according to the United Nations and international relief groups.

The attacks have recently resumed after a ceasefire – which had been in force since the end of August – collapsed.

Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a US-based medical NGO, warned the tens of thousands of civilians who had fled faced harsh conditions at the start of winter.

Medical facilities, already crippled by a year of attacks, are struggling to deal with the influx of wounded, it said. At least 68 medical facilities have been attacked since April.

Additional reporting by agencies.

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