More than 100,000 Syrians have fled their homes in southwest Deraa province in the face of a massive government offensive aimed at recapturing one of the last rebel strongholds in the country in what the UN has warned is a humanitarian “catastrophe”.
Residents told The Independent that the sound of Syrian helicopters and Russian warplanes could be heard constantly over the area.
Government troops have made steady progress in the ten-day-old operation under the cover of intense airstrikes and shelling. On Friday, Syrian state television showed opposition fighters giving up their weapons in several villages east and north of Deraa city.
“The situation is tragic and no one is safe,” said one activist who left the town of Masifra after a suspected Russian strike killed at least 17 people hiding in an makeshift bomb shelter on Thursday.
At least 98 civilians have been killed, according to war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and five medical facilities are out of action.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, warned that if a siege situation developed in Deraa city itself, civilians will be subjected to “catastrophe”, pleading for all sides to adhere to the de-escalation deal.
Deraa, one of the last majority rebel-held areas in the country, is technically part of a de-escalation deal brokered by the US, Russia and neighbouring Jordan in 2017. President Bashar al Assad and his Russian allies say the assault targets terrorists who are not part of the agreement.
The campaign mirrors similar operations in recent months which have driven out the last of the Syrian opposition from the Homs countryside and East Ghouta - both also designated de-escalation zones.
Leaflets dropped on Deraa city, which is divided into government and rebel-controlled areas, warned residents the army was coming and urged civilians to “kick out the terrorists as your brothers did in eastern Ghouta”.
The UN estimates up to 120,000 civilians have fled the violence since the operation began on 19 June, headed towards miserable makeshift settlements in open areas on the borders with Jordan and Israel.
“Some people are sleeping under trees, others in their cars and some are setting up tents,” said opposition activist Jalal al-Ahmad.
Reports in Syrian media said some rebel fighters were refusing to let civilians pass through checkpoints without paying fees of several hundred dollars.
Rights groups have called on Amman to open the border with Jordan to people in need of protection, The country – which hosts at least 630,000 refugees – closed all crossing points after a checkpoint bomb killed seven Jordanian soldiers in 2016.
Many ordinary Jordanians have expressed a desire to help: the hashtags “Open the border” and “We will give them bread” have been trending on social media.
Israel has no asylum policy for citizens of Syria – a country with which it does not have diplomatic relations – but does provide medical assistance and aid for both fighters and civilians near its borders.
A video released by the Israel Defence Forces on Friday showed soldiers loading aid into trucks in the Israeli-controlled occupied Golan Heights which were picked up by unidentified people on the Syrian side of the border.
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