UN fears ‘bloodbath’ in Syria, Russia denies exodus

GENEVA/MOSCOW: The United Nations warned on Friday fighting in northwest Syria could “end in a bloodbath” and it called again for a ceasefire, while Moscow denied reports of a mass flight of civilians from a Russian-led Syrian government offensive in the region.
Syrian troops backed by Russian air power have been battling since December to eliminate the last rebel strongholds in the region in a war that has killed an estimated 400,000 Syrians, displaced millions more and left much of the country in ruins.
The latest offensive in the northwestern regions of Aleppo and Idlib has uprooted nearly 1 million people — most of them women and children — who fled clashes to seek sanctuary further north, near the Turkish border.
Turkey, which currently hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx and has warned that it will use military power to repel Syrian advances in Idlib and ease a humanitarian crisis in the region.
Families are sleeping outside by roads and in olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm. Some children have died from the cold, while some families have at least reached tent camps for displaced people.
In Geneva, the United Nations reiterated its plea for the escalating fighting in the region to stop.
A spokesman for OCHA, the UN’s humanitarian agency, said 60 per cent of the 900,000 people trapped in a shrinking space after fleeing were children. “We call for an immediate ceasefire to prevent further suffering and what we fear may end in a bloodbath,” OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke told a news briefing.
“The front lines and relentless violence continue to move closer to these areas which are
packed with displaced people, with bombardments increasingly affecting displacement sites and their vicinity,” he said.
However, Russia’s Defence Ministry said reports of hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing from Idlib towards the Turkish border — in an area where Turkish forces maintain forward observation posts — were false, urging Ankara to enable Idlib residents to enter other parts of Syria.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he would speak by phone with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Friday at 1500 GMT and, based on those talks, determine Turkey’s stance on the conflict.
Speaking to reporters, Erdogan said the French and German leaders had proposed a four-way summit with Russia in Istanbul on March 5, but that Putin had not yet responded. He repeated that Turkey was not withdrawing its forces from Idlib.
— Reuters