Syria presses assault amid fears over mass displacement

19 February, 2020 12:00 AM printer

BEIRUT: Syrian troops pressed an offensive Tuesday on the country’s last major rebel enclave where the mass displacement of civilians is sparking fears of a humanitarian catastrophe, reports AFP.

Around 900,000 people have been forced from their homes and shelters in less than three months, leaving huge numbers to sleep rough in the thick of winter.

Children have died of exposure in snow-covered camps and the United Nations has warned that the crisis could worsen if no ceasefire is reached to facilitate the relief effort.

“Over the past four days alone, some 43,000 newly displaced people have fled western Aleppo where fighting has been particularly fierce,” UN spokesman David Swanson told AFP.

Since the start of February, the displacement figure was a staggering 300,000, he said.

The wave of displacement is the biggest since the start of the civil war nearly nine years ago. It is largest exodus of civilains since World War II.

“The violence in northwest Syria is indiscriminate. Health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets have been hit,” the UN head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, Mark Lowcock, said on Monday.

He said that basic infrastructure was falling apart, that health facilities were being destroyed and that the risk of disease outbreaks was high.

“The biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st Century will only be avoided if Security Council members, and those with influence, overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first,” Lowcock said.

Russia, the main foreign broker in Syria, has vetoed countless resolutions on the conflict. “The only option is a ceasefire,” Lowcock said.

According to Save The Children, seven children—including a baby only seven months old—have died from freezing temperatures and bad living conditions in the camps.

“We’re worried that the death toll will increase given the absolutely inhumane living conditions that women and children are finding themselves in, with sub-zero temperatures, no roof over their heads and no warm clothes,” the charity’s Syria director Sonia Khush said.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the temperature dipped to minus 7 Celsius in some areas last week.

“Those families who could take some of their belongings as they fled from their homes are reportedly burning whatever they could find, including pieces of furniture and whatever can be spared to stay warm for a short while,” it said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for the establishment of humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians to prevent further loss of life.

“As the government offensive continues and people are forced into smaller and smaller pockets, I fear even more people will be killed,” she said in a statement.

There was no sign of any let-up in the violence, however, with President Bashar al-Assad promising on Monday that government forces would press on with their offensive.