More than 235,000 flee intense bombing in northwest Syria

BEIRUT: Civilians on Friday packed a road leading out of a flashpoint town in northwest Syria, where two weeks of heightened regime and Russian bombardment has displaced 235,000 people. Pick-up trucks carrying mattresses, clothes and house-hold appliances ferried entire families out of southern Idlib province, most heading towards safer areas further north, said a correspondent on the ground. Since mid-December, regime forces and their Russian allies have heightened bombardment on the southern edge of the final major opposition-held pocket of Syria, eight years into the country’s devastating war.
The latest violence in the Idlib region has killed scores of civilians, despite an August ceasefire deal and international calls for a de-escalation.
More than 235,000 people fled the area between December 12 and 25, mostly from the beleaguered city of Maaret al Numan which has been left “almost empty”, according to the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination agency OCHA. OCHA spokesman David Swanson said on Friday that more than 80 per cent of those who have fled southern Idlib this month are women and children. “I can’t live in the camps,” said Umm Abdo, a mother of five who recently arrived in a displacement camp in the town of Dana, north of Idlib’s provincial capital.
“The rain is very strong, and we need heating… clothes, and food,” she said, her tired eyes showing through her veil.
The Idlib region hosts some three million people, including many displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria.
It is dominated by the country’s former Al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, whose chief this week urged fighters and allied fighters to head to the frontlines and battle “the Russian occupiers” and the regime.
Since December 19, HTS fighters and their rebel allies have been locked in fierce battles with regime forces around Maaret al Numan.
Damascus loyalists have seized dozens of towns and villages from fighters in clashes that have killed hundreds of fighters on both sides.
The advances have brought them to within four kilometres of Maaret al Numan, one of Idlib’s largest urban centres. According to OCHA, ongoing battles have further amplified displacement from the area and the nearby town of Saraqab.
“People from Saraqab and its eastern countryside are now fleeing in anticipation of fighting directly affecting their communities next,” it said. The mass displacement could not come at a worse time, with heavy rainfall flooding squalid camps for the displaced. “Being forced to move in winter months exacerbates existing vulnerabilities, particularly of the women, children, elderly, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups,” OCHA said. Since mid-December, the fighting has killed nearly 80 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor. — AFP