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Clashes in northwest Syria displace civilians

February 2, 2020

Insurgents using car bombs have attacked Syrian troops on Aleppo's western edge. State media claimed four primed vehicles were destroyed before reaching targets. UN chief Antonio Guterres has called for de-escalation.

People flee Idlib province with their belongings loaded on trucks
Image: Reuters/K. Ashawi

Two suicide car bomb attacks were staged by the jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on the edge of Aleppo, Reuters reported late on Saturday — part of Syria's northwest, which includes Idlib province, where rebels have their last footholds.

Aleppo has been under control of President Bashar Assad's forces since its recapture and the defeat of rebels in its eastern suburbs in 2016.

Syria's state news agency SANA said troops had responded to the insurgent attack in the Jamiyat al Zahraa area on the western edge of Aleppo by firing artillery and rockets, and destroying car bombs before they reached their apparent targets.

Read more: Syria — what do the USA, Russia, Turkey and Iran want?

The jihadi-linked media outlet Ebaa said the rebels had also captured a group of houses overlooking Aleppo.

Meanwhile, Turkish-based rebels had attacked Syrian government positions near al-Bab, a city some 50 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Clashes follow capture of key town

The two sets of clashes follow the seizure of the town of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province by Assad's forces on Wednesday as part of a two-week offensive, backed by Russian air power, to secure the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo.

A Syrian soldier amid destroyed buildings
January 30: Scene in Maarat al-Numan, captured by Assad's forces on Wednesday Image: Reuters/Y. Al Shaar

Late on Wednesday, warplanes had also struck Ariha, another town in Idlib province, killing at least 10 civilians and wounding 24 people, including a doctor, according to the Observatory.

Russia's defense ministry denied it had struck near a local hospital, describing such claims as "provocation."

Children make up half of displaced

Save the Children, also citing partner advocates, warned on Friday that half of the nearly 400,000 people displaced by the offensive were children.

Convoys of trucks and other vehicles carrying civilians had crammed roads in areas between Aleppo and Idlib on a scale "unlike anything they had seen before."

UNICEF said daily 6,500 children had had to flee the past week's violence.

UN relief coordinator Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that "many families are moving multiple times." 

The cycle of seeking shelter "only for bombs to follow" was "all too familiar" in northwestern Syria, Lowcock said.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of neighboring Turkey warned Friday that Ankara could use military force to stabilize Idlib as tens of thousands fled toward the border.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
Attacks on civilians 'unacceptable,' says UN's GuterresImage: Reuters/A. Schmidt

Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has troops stationed at 12 observation posts inside Idlib province, itself home to roughly 3 million people, most of them displaced from other parts of Syria.

UN chief Guterres on Saturday called for an "immediate cessation of hostilities" in northwestern Syria.

Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure were "unacceptable," said Guterres' spokesman.

The Syrian Observatory said the past week's fighting in Idlib and on Aleppo's western fringe had left 205 government fighters and 220 anti-regime combatants dead.

ipj/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters)