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AFP
February 19, 2020

Syria presses assault amid fears over mass displacement

World

AFP
February 19, 2020

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.

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. The United Nations said that half a million among them were children, some of whom have died of exposure in snow-covered camps.

The UN 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 civilians 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.

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

The latest violence on Tuesday left at least two civilians dead. One was killed in a Russian air strike and the other in regime shelling.

A member of regime-backer Iran´s Revolutionary Guards was killed in Aleppo province in a rocket strike, Iranian state media reported.

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," 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.