Tens of thousands flee new regime offensives in Syria

Friday 16/10/2015
Growing concerns as weather is getting colder

BEIRUT - Tens of thousands have fled new regime offensives in Syria, the UN warned Tuesday, as Russian air strikes were reported to have so far killed 370 people, many of them civilians.

The mass exodus was focused south of Syria's second city Aleppo, one of five areas where regime troops have launched renewed attacks since Russia began its air war on September 30.

"Around 35,000 people are reported to have been displaced from... the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo city, following government offensives over the last few days," said Vanessa Huguenin, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

She said many of the displaced were living with host families and in informal settlements in the west of the province.

"People urgently need food and basic household and shelter items," she said.

"Aid agencies are growing more and more concerned for families living outdoors as the weather is getting colder, especially overnight."

Syria's conflict has left more than 250,000 dead and forced millions from their homes since March 2011, sparking a mass migration of refugees that has left Europe struggling to cope.

Russia has carried out more than 500 air raids in support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces and a monitoring group on Tuesday gave the first estimate for the total number of dead in the strikes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 370 people had been killed, including more than 120 civilians.

Among them were 45 rebels and civilians killed on Monday in a series of Russian strikes in the north of government stronghold Latakia province, it said.

Dozens were also wounded in Monday's raids, some of the deadliest yet in the Russian campaign, and a rebel commander from a moderate opposition group was among the dead, it said.

The Observatory also said tens of thousands were fleeing the new offensives, estimating that up to 100,000 had been forced from their homes in Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

Aleppo, once Syria's economic hub, has been a key focus of the fighting. The city has been ravaged by war and divided between government forces in the west and rebels in the east since shortly after fighting there began in mid-2012.

The situation is largely reversed in the surrounding countryside and the frontlines have been static for months.

But last Friday, government forces began a new offensive south of the city, attacking areas near the strategic Aleppo-Damascus highway.

The Observatory said Tuesday that regime forces had seized five villages in the area since the offensive began.

But Syria's Al-Watan daily, which is close to the regime, said the army had taken 16 villages and an area totalling some 100 square kilometres (40 square miles).

It said the operation would "cut militant reinforcement routes between south Aleppo province and east Idlib province and take the international highway from Aleppo to Hama."

The highway that runs from Aleppo to Damascus via Hama and Homs provinces appears to be the main target of several of the government offensives launched in recent weeks.

In Hama, much of the fighting has centred on an area close to the road, and in Homs, the government has been fighting to take villages along the highway just north of the provincial capital.

There has also been heavy fighting for the Sahl al-Ghab region between Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces, with government troops seeking to prevent rebels who control Idlib province from being able to attack Latakia.

Russia insists its air campaign is intended to target the Islamic State group and others it describes as "terrorists".

But rebels and their backers accuse Moscow of seeking to prop up Assad, a longtime ally, and accuse Russia of striking moderate and Islamist opposition forces rather than just jihadists.

The Observatory said Tuesday that some 243 opposition forces had been killed in Russian air strikes since September 30, including 52 from ISIS.

At least 127 civilians have been killed in the strikes, including 36 children and 34 women, it said.

Another 25 fighters from the pro-government National Defence Forces militia were killed in clashes in Jabal Al-Akrad and Sahl al-Ghab on Monday, the monitor said.