A regime offensive in Syria’s last rebel enclave has caused more than half a million civilians to flee, one of the biggest waves of displacement in the nine-year war, with tensions spiking between Ankara and Damascus following a deadly exchange of fire, AFP reported.
Weeks of intensive aerial bombardment and a bruising ground offensive have emptied entire towns in northwest Idlib and sent huge numbers fleeing north towards the Turkish border.
“Since 1 December, some 520,000 people have been displaced from their homes, the vast majority — 80 percent — of them women and children,” said David Swanson, spokesman for the United Nation’s humanitarian coordination office, OCHA.
The exodus, coinciding with a biting winter, is one of the largest since the 2011 start of a conflict that has seen more than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 20 million displaced.
“This latest displacement compounds an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground,” Swanson said.
He said the UN was alarmed by the plight of more than 3 million people — half of them displaced by violence elsewhere — who live in Idlib and surrounding areas.
Government troops and militia forces backed by Russian and other allied forces have in recent weeks upped the pressure on the jihadist-dominated region.
Regime forces also exchanged deadly fire with Turkish troops on Monday, an escalation UN chief Antonio Guterres called “extremely worrying.”
Regime shelling of Turkish positions in Idlib killed eight Turkish military personnel, Ankara said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that retaliatory fire from Turkey killed at least 13 Syrian government troops.