Middle East

Thousands flee bombardment in northwest Syria

Syrians sit in a vehicle as they drive towards the northern areas of Syria's Idlib province near the Syrian-Turkish border as they flee the bombardments in the southern areas of the country's last major opposition bastion, on December 20, 2019. / AFP / Aaref WATAD

BEIRUT: Thousands of people have fled to the Turkish border from the last big opposition stronghold in northwestern Syria because of an intensified bombardment by Russian forces and the Syrian army, residents and rescue workers said Friday.

A long line of vehicles was seen Friday leaving the opposition-held city of Maarat al-Numan which has borne the brunt of the attacks, which included airstrikes, they said.

“The exodus is in the thousands. It’s a humanitarian catastrophe, we are seeing people walking in the streets and people waiting near the homes for cars to take them out,” said Osama Ibrahim, a rescue worker.

Airstrikes killed six people overnight in Maarat al-Numan and 11 were killed in villages in the area, rescue teams said.

Hundreds of people have been killed this year in attacks on residential areas in the region, according to U.N. agencies, though a Syrian and Russian military campaign launched at the end of April had subsided in August under a fragile ceas-efire.

Syrian state media said the Syrian army had pushed into several villages southeast of Idlib. Rebel fighters, who say the Russian and Syrian forces are implementing a scorched earth policy as they advance, said villages seized included Um Jalal in southern Idlib province and Rabea and Harbiya in eastern Idlib.

Russia and the Syrian army, which is loyal to President Bashar Assad, deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who reached a pact with Russia in September to contain the fighting and whose country is seen by many civilians in opposition areas as a protector, has warned of a renewed refugee influx. He said Thursday 50,000 people were fleeing Syria’s northwestern region of Idlib. He did not say whether any of the people fleeing had entered Turkey.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 21, 2019, on page 1.

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