UN ‘deeply concerned’ as thousands flee new onslaught in northwest Syria

The statement came as at least eight people were killed in a Russian air strike on Tuesday

The UN has expressed dismay as thousands of Syrians continue to flee northwest Syria in the face of a military escalation by the regime.

Since Thursday, President Bashar Al Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air strikes, have taken control of dozens of towns and villages in Idlib.

The regime launched a new assault on areas of the province held by extremists in December in an effort to capture one of the largest urban centres in the opposition stronghold.

The advances in Idlib came as Russian warplanes continued to pummel the province’s south, fuelling an exodus of civilians, who fear further chaos.

A statement from a representative of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the escalation and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

“The Secretary General is alarmed by the scale of the military operation and reported attacks on evacuation routes as civilians try to flee north to safety,” the statement read. Mr Guterres “reminds all parties of their obligations to protect civilians and ensure freedom of movement.”

The recent military escalation has resulted in dozens of civilian casualties and the displacement of at least 80,000 civilians, including 30,000 in the past week alone.

Assad has vowed to recapture Idlib, the last significant region of Syria still under rebel control after almost nine years of civil war.

Mr Guterres’ statement came as Syrian government forces made advances in the southeast of the province on Monday.

“Regime forces have surrounded the Turkish observation post in Al Surman after capturing several towns and villages, including Jarjanaz and Al Surman,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Tuesday in Russian air strikes on a school in northwest Syria sheltering displaced civilians, SOHR said.

The strikes hit the village of Jubass near the town of Saraqeb in southern Idlib province, killing civilians sheltering in and near the building.

A Turkish delegation was in Russia on Monday for talks on Syria, following the reports of thousands fleeing close to the Turkish border.

Turkey already hosts about 3.7 million Syrians – the world’s biggest refugee population. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday it could not handle a new influx and urged Russia to stop the Idlib strikes.

The Istanbul-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) said on Monday that 120,000 Syrians were fleeing towards the Turkish border – more than Erdogan’s estimate of 80,000.

Russia and Iran have supported Assad’s forces during the Syrian conflict while Turkey has backed Syrian rebels fighting Assad.

Russian and Syrian army jets have been targeting civilian convoys trying to flee the Idlib city of Maarat Al Numan, leaving hundreds of families trapped there, activists and aid groups have said.

“It’s a tragic situation for civilians remaining in the city since Russian jets are hitting any convoy that leaves the city, while those who were able to reach areas closer to the border have nowhere to shelter,” said Mohamad Rasheed, an activist in the area.