Tens of thousands flee as Syrian regime advances near Aleppo

Meanwhile, more than US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) was pledged at a donors conference for Syria in London, just hours after the collapse of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

DAMASCUS // Tens of thousands of Syrians fled their homes on Thursday as regime troops pushed on with a major Russian-backed offensive around the city of Aleppo.

Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking at a donors conference in London, warned that up to 70,000 people were headed towards his country to escape the fighting.

More than US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) was pledged at conference to help ease the plight of Syrians affected by the nearly five-year war, just hours after the collapse of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir on Thursday blamed the Syrian government for the talks being suspended, saying it had refused to cooperate with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.

He added that Russian military operations in Syria were aimed at provoking the Syrian opposition.

It came as Washington demanded that Russia halt its bombing campaign in support of president Bashar Al Assad’s government.

Also on Thursday, Moscow accused Turkey, a key backer of opposition to Mr Al Assad, of actively preparing to invade Syria, saying it had spotted troops and military equipment on the border.

The accusation came just hours after Mr Davutoglu accused Mr Al Assad’s supporters of “committing the same war crimes” as the regime.

The growing offensive around Aleppo this week overshadowed peace and aid efforts, as regime forces sought to build on a series of important gains since Russia launched air strikes in Syria in September.

The advance threatens to completely encircle rebels in Aleppo city, Syria’s former economic powerhouse which has been divided between opposition control in the east and regime control in the west since mid-2012.

The Aleppo rebels’ main supply line to Turkey was severed on Wednesday when regime troops broke an opposition siege of two Shiite towns, Nubol and Zahraa, on the route to the border.

Regime forces entered the two towns on Thursday to the cheers of residents, who chanted pro-government slogans and showered the fighters with rice.

But elsewhere in the region the advance prompted tens of thousands to flee for fear of being caught up in the fighting.

Mr Davutoglu said 60,000 to 70,000 people were “moving towards Turkey”, while 10,000 were “waiting at the door” on the border because of air strikes and attacks around Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said nearly 40,000 people in Aleppo province had fled their homes, with many massing at the border.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the regime was now likely to target the Aleppo rebels’ last remaining supply route, through the neighbouring opposition-held Idlib province.

The Aleppo offensive has been backed by a wave of Russian air raids, including strikes on Thursday that killed at least 21 civilians, including three children, according to the Observatory.

Opposition delegates cited continued regime attacks as the key obstacle to this week’s peace efforts, which struggled from the beginning.

The opposition arrived late and refused to begin even indirect talks without the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions on the lifting of sieges and protection of civilians.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Wednesday that the talks had been suspended but insisted the process had not failed, saying he hoped to resume on February 25.

The UN Security Council said it would meet on Friday for consultations with Mr De Mistura on the breakdown.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters