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Tens of thousands of Syrians flee Aleppo to Turkish border

Bulent Kilic, AFP | Syrians flee regime forces on February 5.

Tens of thousands of Syrians remained stranded on the Turkish border Saturday after fleeing a major Russian-backed regime offensive near Aleppo where a new humanitarian disaster appeared to be unfolding.


At least 20,000 civilians are reported to have joined the exodus after fierce fighting involving government forces who severed the rebels’ main supply route into Syria’s second city.

Top EU officials on Saturday reminded Turkey of its international obligations to keep its frontiers open to refugees as thousands fleeing a new government offensive in Syria remained camped out along its southern border.

"The Geneva convention is still valid which states that you have to take in refugees," EU Enlargement and Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said as he went into talks on the migrant crisis with EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from countries seeking EU membership, including Turkey.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor that relies on a network of sources on the ground, estimates that 40,000 people have fled the regime offensive near Aleppo.

“Thousands of people, mainly families with women and children, are waiting to enter Turkey,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has verified the displacement of about 20,000 people in northern Aleppo, spokeswoman Linda Tom said.

“Ongoing conflict is making access to populations in need increasingly difficult,” she added.

Aleppo province is one of the main strongholds of Syria’s armed opposition, which is facing possibly its worst moment since the beginning of the war in 2011.

“The trajectory for the rebels is downwards, and the downward slope is increasingly steep,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The rebels are on the retreat everywhere.”

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Thursday up to 70,000 people were heading to his country, with 10,000 already waiting at the border.

His country already hosts about 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

On Friday morning, the main border crossing in northern Aleppo was closed and quiet on the Turkish side near the town of Kilis, with no sign of arriving refugees.

But footage released Thursday by activists showed hundreds of people, including many children, heading towards the Turkish frontier, some carrying their belongings in plastic bags on their backs.

“We were driven from our homes because of Russia, Iran, Bashar and (Lebanese Shiite militia) Hezbollah,” a child said in the video. “We ask (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to let us into his territory.”

After meeting his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on Friday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Turkey had an "absolutely decisive" role to play in stopping migrants leaving its shores for Greece and in "readmitting illegal migrants who come to Europe from its territory".

Heavy bombardment

More than 260,000 people have died in Syria’s conflict and more than half the population has been displaced.

Aleppo city, Syria’s former economic powerhouse, has been divided between opposition control in the east and regime control in the west since mid-2012.

Syria’s army has been on the offensive since staunch government ally Russia began an aerial campaign in support of regime forces on September 30.

Since then, the regime has recaptured several key rebel towns in Latakia province Assad’s coastal heartland and advanced in Aleppo province and in Daraa in the south.

On Friday the army seized the town of Ratyan and village of Mayer, north of Aleppo, with support from dozens of Russian air strikes.

Pro-government troops backed by Russian warplanes also retook a rebel bastion in Daraa used as a launch pad for attacks on the provincial capital, the Observatory said.

The losses have angered and demoralised Syria’s opposition, activists said.

“What frustrates the rebels the most is that the countries that claim to be their friends are happy with empty words and sitting on the fence,” said Maamoun al-Khatib, an activist and head of the Shabha press agency in Aleppo.

“Meanwhile (regime allies) Russia and Iran are occupying and violating Syrian territory.”

Top diplomats from countries trying to resolve the conflict are set to meet again on February 11 after the collapse of peace talks this week.

But tensions between them remain, with Moscow on Thursday accusing key opposition backer Ankara of actively preparing to invade Syria, a claim Erdogan dismissed Friday as “laughable”.

Davutoglu had earlier accused Assad’s supporters of “committing the same war crimes” as the regime.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he had warned Moscow to stop targeting the Syrian opposition in what he described as a “robust” phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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