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

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.


500,000 children face ‘immediate danger’ in Libya capital: UN

Updated 37 min 23 sec ago

500,000 children face ‘immediate danger’ in Libya capital: UN

TRIPOLI: Half a million children are in “immediate danger” in Libya’s capital Tripoli due to fighting, the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF said on Monday.
Clashes that broke out between rival militias in late August had killed at least 115 people and wounded nearly 400 by Saturday night, according to Libya’s health ministry.
UNICEF said more than 1,200 families were displaced in the past 48 hours as the clashes intensified in southern Tripoli before pausing on Monday.
That put the total number of people displaced by the recent fighting at over 25,000, half of whom were children, it said.
The UN agency’s Middle East and North Africa director, Geert Cappelaere, said children were paying a “heavy toll” and were increasingly being recruited by armed groups.
“We see children being prevented from going to school, we see children not having the vaccination that they urgently need,” he said.
Those whose parents came to Libya with the hope of migrating to Europe by sea suffered doubly, said Cappelaere.
“They are already facing dire living conditions, many of them are held in detention,” a situation made worse by “the violence that is happening today,” he said.
UNICEF also said schools are increasingly being used to shelter displaced families, which is likely to delay the start of the academic year beyond October 3.
It said residents are facing food, power and water shortages, adding that the clashes had exacerbated the plight of migrants.
“Hundreds of detained refugees and migrants, including children, were forced to move because of violence. Others are stranded in centers in dire conditions,” Cappelaere said.
Despite a UN-brokered cease-fire on September 4, fighting broke out again last week in southern districts of the capital.
The clashes have pitted armed groups from Tarhuna and Misrata against Tripoli militias nominally controlled by Libya’s UN-backed unity government.
The Libyan capital has been at the center of a battle for influence between armed groups since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in a NATO-backed 2011 uprising.
The country’s unity government has struggled to exert its control in the face of a multitude of militias and a rival administration based in eastern Libya.