Syrian govt offensive triggers mass exodus

Displaced families sitting at a school in al-Mabroukeh village in the western countryside of Ras al-Ain, Syria, on Dec 28, 2015.
Displaced families sitting at a school in al-Mabroukeh village in the western countryside of Ras al-Ain, Syria, on Dec 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Thousands of civilians stranded on Turkish border after fleeing Russian-backed operation near Aleppo

DAMASCUS • Tens of thousands of Syrians were stuck on the Turkish border yesterday after fleeing from a major regime offensive backed by Russia near Aleppo, where a new humanitarian disaster appeared to be unfolding.

The Syrian government's military offensive has prompted at least 15,000 people to flee and involved a reported 13 air strikes on medical facilities last month, the United Nations said yesterday.

"The UN has verified that at least 15,000 people (are) fleeing from north of Aleppo city and tens of thousands have reportedly gathered at the border crossing with Turkey," a UN spokesman said in an e-mailed comment. "Local sources said that while the Turkish border remains closed to civilian movement, those requiring urgent medical care have been receiving treatment from local hospitals in Turkey.

Western nations have accused the Syrian government of sabotaging peace talks with its military offensive, and Washington has demanded that Moscow halt its campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The United Nations Security Council was due to meet later yesterday to discuss the faltering peace process, as Nato head Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russian air strikes were "undermining the efforts to find a political solution".

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor that relies on a network of sources on the ground, estimates that 40,000 people have fled the regime's offensive near Aleppo. "Thousands of people, mainly families with women and children, are waiting to enter Turkey," said observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Aleppo province is one of the main strongholds of Syria's armed opposition, which is facing possibly its worst moment since the beginning of the war in 2011.

"The regime is beginning to reap the rewards of the Russian campaign and its advance in Aleppo is all the more important because it has suffered setback after setback in the past two years," Mr Abdel Rahman said.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday that up to 70,000 people were heading to his country, with 10,000 already waiting at the border. Turkey is hosting about 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

The Turkish border crossing of Oncupinar near Kilis, which faces the Syrian frontier post of Bab al- Salam north of Aleppo, was closed yesterday morning and there was no sign of any refugee outflow.

Footage released on Thursday by activists showed hundreds of people, including many children, heading towards the Turkish border, some carrying their belongings in plastic bags on their backs. A child in the video said: "We were driven from our homes because of Russia, Iran, Bashar and (Lebanese Shi'ite militia) Hizbollah. We ask (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to let us into his territory."

Over 260,000 people have died in Syria's conflict and more than half the population has been displaced.

Aleppo, Syria's former economic powerhouse, has been divided between opposition control in the east and regime control in the west since mid-2012.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian govt offensive triggers mass exodus'. Print Edition | Subscribe