Syria is experiencing the largest mass displacement of people in the brutal seven-year-old war to date as civilians flee fighting in the south of the country, aid agencies have said.
At least 320,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Deraa province in the face of a Syrian government offensive to retake the area from rebel forces since 19 June, the UN’s refugee agency, UNCHR, said on Friday.
Around 60,000 are camped out near the Jordanian border and at least 164,000 are in an area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Many are sleeping in their cars and under trees in barren land, without adequate shelter or water to cope with up to 45C (113F) heat. At least 12 children, two women, and one elderly man have died due to dehydration, contaminated water and scorpion bites, according to UNHCR.
With the help of Russian airstrikes, forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad have made quick progress through the Deraa countryside and are now on the verge of encircling rebel-held parts of Deraa city and retaking a border crossing with Jordan from rebel hands.
The area is supposedly part of a de-escalation deal between Mr Assad’s forces and rebel groups brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan last year, but the Syrian government says the latest offensive targets terrorist groups not covered by the agreement.
It mirrors other recent ‘scorched earth’ campaigns against the opposition so far this year in eastern Ghouta and the Homs countryside – both also designated de-escalation zones.
The opposition has held several rounds of talks with Russian negotiators which appeared to result in a tentative deal on Friday to hand over weaponry in exchange for safe passage to Idlib in Syria’s north – after Deraa, the last rebel stronghold in the country.
Russian police would be deployed to the Jordanian border, rebel spokesperson Ibrahim Jabawi said.
Government forces reached the Jordan border on Thursday for the first time since 2015, war monitors said, and a tank with a Russian flag and several other armoured vehicles were spotted three kilometres (two miles) away from Nasib crossing on Friday.
Israel is anxious to ensure that the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which fights alongside Syrian government troops, is kept away from the border region.
The group is believed to be keeping a low profile in the offensive, although an associated media unit said Hezbollah fighters captured eight border posts on Friday.
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