Damascus shells Idlib after UN chief warns of ‘bloodbath’

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A man watches as smoke rises after what activists said was an air strike on Atimah, Idlib province March 8, 2015. (REUTERS)
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Children try improvised gas masks in their home in Binnish in Syria. (AFP )
Updated 12 September 2018
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Damascus shells Idlib after UN chief warns of ‘bloodbath’

  • Russia-backed government forces have been massing for weeks around Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people
  • UN agencies have warned that any major assault could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war

 

 

Government forces shelled Syria’s last major rebel bastion on Wednesday, hours after UN chief Antonio Guterres warned the Security Council any full-blown offensive in Idlib risks triggering a “bloodbath.” 

As troops massed for a Russian-backed offensive in the northwest, Kurdish-led rebels launched a US-backed assault in the east to oust Daesh from its last redoubt in the Euphrates Valley, the US-led coalition confirmed.

Intermittent artillery fire hit southern districts of Idlib province and adjacent rebel-held areas of Hama province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based war monitor did not immediately report any casualties from the bombardment which came after shelling and air strikes killed at least 15 civilians in the rebel zone since Sept. 4.

The northwestern province and adjacent areas form the largest chunk of territory still held by the rebels, who have been worn down by a succession of defeats in other parts of the country.

Russia-backed government forces have been massing for weeks around Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people, many of them already dependent on aid.

UN agencies and relief organizations have warned repeatedly that any major assault could spark one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war.

“It is absolutely essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib,” Guterres said on Tuesday.

“This would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict.”

Ankara, which already hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, fears a new mass exodus and has called repeatedly for a cease-fire to give time for a negotiated settlement.

More than half of Idlib province is held by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an extremist alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, and Turkey has warned a government offensive could scatter thousands of foreign extremists abroad, posing a security threat to the West.

A major battle would trigger a “massive wave of refugees and tremendous security risks for Turkey, the rest of Europe and beyond,” Turkish ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu told the Security Council on Tuesday.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed strong support for the Turkish position, warning there were “many terrorists from other nations who could scatter” in the event of a joint Syrian-Russian offensive, posing “risks for our security.”

France, the European country worst hit by a wave of attacks since 2015, has been on high alert for radicals returning home from areas of Iraq and Syria that have been recaptured from Daesh.

In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, US-backed fighters fought to oust Daesh from the town of Hajjin on the east bank of the Euphrates, the most significant remnant of the sprawling “caliphate” the jihadists once controlled spanning Syria and Iraq.

The operation “will clear remnants of Daesh from northeastern Syria along the Middle Euphrates River Valley toward the Syria-Iraq border,” the US-led coalition said.

In Idlib, civilians and fighters have been scrambling to prepare for the looming offensive.

Western governments have said Damascus might again resort to the use of chemical weapons while Moscow has accused rebels of staging one as a pretext for Western intervention.

In a southern part of Idlib, a worried father busied himself making homemade gas masks, by stuffing gauze, cotton wool and coal into paper cups, then placing them in the corner of a large plastic bag.

“We’ve been hearing the regime and Russia threaten to bomb us with chemical weapons,” said Hadheefa Al-Shahhad.

“We had to make these masks to protect our women and children just in case,” said the 27-year-old, who says he learnt how to make them by watching a video online.

On Tuesday, Russia claimed that Syrian rebels had begun working on film footage that would be presented to the world as the aftermath of an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian army.

Assad’s regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons during the conflict and last year US President Donald Trump unleashed Tomahawk missiles against the regime’s Shayrat air base following an attack that killed more than 80 people.

After another alleged toxic attack outside Damascus in April, Britain, France and the US also carried out retaliatory strikes.

Washington has spoken of far bigger reprisals if Assad orders any repetition.

“He’s been warned, and so we’ll see if he’s wised up,” US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday.

 


Russian army says 270,000 Syrian refugees have returned home

Updated 34 min 39 sec ago
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Russian army says 270,000 Syrian refugees have returned home

  • Moscow and the government in Damascus have been encouraging refugees to repatriate, arguing that the violence has subsided
  • Rights groups and the UN fear refugees would face persecution returning to government-controlled areas in the absence of a comprehensive political agreement

MOSCOW: The Russian military said nearly 270,000 Syrian refugees have returned home in recent months, a fraction of the estimated 5.6 million Syrians who have fanned out across the world fleeing the seven-year conflict.
Moscow and the government in Damascus have been encouraging refugees to repatriate, arguing that the violence has subsided. Russia launched military operations to help Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2015, changing the tide of the war in his favor.
Western governments have, however, argued that it’s too early to encourage return. Rights groups and the UN fear refugees would face persecution returning to government-controlled areas in the absence of a comprehensive political agreement.
Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev of the Russian Defense Ministry told reporters Friday that nearly 6,000 people have returned to Syria in the last week alone, according to data collected by Russia.
He said they are seeing large waves of refugees returning home.
The conflict has caused nearly half of Syria’s population to be displaced, with an estimated 6 million internally displaced and 5.6 million fleeing to neighboring countries and Europe, and registering with the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Russia has negotiated local cease-fires that have greatly reduced the fighting, but the causes of the conflict have not been addressed. The Syrian government has regained control of nearly 60 percent of Syrian territory. But armed opposition, some backed by Turkey, and Daesh militants remain holed up in areas in the north and south of the country.
The violence has not completely stopped.
On Friday, the UN Children agency UNICEF said the first nine months of 2018 saw the highest number of children killed since the conflict began in 2011, putting it at 870 till September.
“These are only verified cases, with actual numbers likely to be much higher,” UNICEF said in a statement Friday.
The agency said it is alarmed by recent reports of the killing of up to 30 children in the last IS-held pocket in eastern Syria where the U.S-led coalition and its local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, have been waging an offensive for over two months.
UNICEF didn’t say how the children were killed, but reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — the Britain-based group monitoring the war — said more than 30 children were killed last weekend in coalition airstrikes on Shafaa village held by the extremists. The coalition says it checks reports of civilian casualties, describing its airstrikes mostly as targeting IS installations or posts.