More than 30,000 people have so far fled their homes in north-west Syria since government and allied forces resumed air and ground bombardments last week, the UN agency co-ordinating relief efforts said.
The UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said an all-out military assault on the last major stronghold of active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad could see 800,000 people flee. OCHA chief, Mark Lowcock, warned this risked provoking the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.
Damascus, backed by Russia and Iran, is preparing a major assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of north-west Syria from rebels.
Russian and Syrian warplanes resumed their bombing campaign last week and the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia failed to agree on a ceasefire to forestall the offensive.
OCHA spokesman David Swanson told Reuters as of Sunday, 30,542 people were displaced from north-west Syria, moving to different areas across Idlib.
About 2.9 million people live in the opposition-held area, comprises most of Idlib province and adjacent small parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces. Around half of them are already displaced from other parts of Syria.
ON THE MOVE AGAIN
“We are actively preparing for the possibility of civilians moving in huge numbers in multiple directions,” Lowcock told a news briefing in Geneva.
“There need 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 of the 21st century,” he said.
Swanson said since Friday’s summit, mortar and rocket attacks increased, especially in the northern Hama countryside and southern Idlib rural areas.
He said 47% of those displaced moved to camps, 29% are staying with families, 14% settled in informal camps and 10% are in rented accommodation.
Abu al-Baraa al-Hamawi, a rebel leader in northern Hama, said about 95% of people left villages in northern and western Hama province and in southern Idlib province in the last three days due to intensive air strikes.
More than half a million people have been killed and 11 million forced to flee their homes in Syria’s seven-year-old war.
Christy Delafield of Mercy Corps, one of the largest organisations delivering aid in Syria, said it was hard for aid workers and communities to keep up.
“There is a lack of water storage capacity in many areas where we operate, with just two or three days of water available to civilians,” she told Reuters.
“Crossing points along the front lines between government and opposition-controlled areas are closed, and as a result, food prices have dramatically increased.”
The opposition accuses Russia and its allies of striking at hospitals and civil defence centres to force rebels to surrender in a repeat of earlier, large-scale military offensives.
Russia said it wants all militants out of Idlib and it avoids civilians and targets only radical al Qaeda-inspired groups.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said rebel shelling hit Hama military airport and another nearby military complex in government-held territory.
UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura began two days of talks in Geneva on Monday with senior officials from Russia, Iran and Turkey on forming a Constitutional Committee in Syria, expected to be overshadowed by the Idlib crisis.
Tehran and Moscow helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to Islamist militants. Turkey is a leading opposition supporter with troops in the country and erected 12 observation posts around rebel-held Idlib.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was reported as saying by broadcaster NTV air and ground attacks on Idlib must stop and a ceasefire must be established.