KHAN SHEIKHOUN (Syria) • Violence in north-west Syria has displaced more than 30,000 people this month alone, said the United Nations, warning that a looming assault could create the century's "worst humanitarian catastrophe".
Idlib province and the adjacent rural areas form the largest piece of territory still held by Syria's beleaguered rebels, who have been worn down by government victories in recent months.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has now set his sights on Idlib, and his forces have stepped up bombardment of the densely populated province since the beginning of the month.
That has led to the displacement of about 30,400 people in Idlib and parts of the adjacent Hama province between Sept 1 and Sept 9, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) said on Monday.
Ocha spokesman David Swanson said: "We're deeply concerned about this recent escalation of violence, which has resulted in the displacement of over 30,000 in the area."
Most people made a dash for Syria's northern border with Turkey, with just under half seeking refuge in displacement camps, staying with local families or in rental apartments.
On Monday, on the main highway running across the province, men on motorbikes headed north, while children followed on foot, herding dozens of sheep.
Mr Abu Jassim said he and his family were fleeing the latest bombardment near the southern town of Khan Sheikhoun, after already having been displaced several times within the province due to the war.
The UN said as many as 800,000 people could be displaced by the assault on Idlib and the surrounding areas. About three million people live in the area now - about half of whom have been displaced before by the brutal seven-year war.
For weeks, government troops backed by Russia and Iran have massed around Idlib, and air strikes and bombings have intensified in recent days. Syria's conflict has killed more than 350,000 people and forced millions more out of their homes, but the UN has warned that a full-blown attack on Idlib could bring unprecedented suffering.
On Monday, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, speaking to reporters in Geneva, said: "There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don't turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe, with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century."