Fleeing regime fire, Syrians desert northwestern town


Khan Sheikhun (Syria) (AFP)

During a lull in regime bombardment, Abu Abdu al-Sarmani drove a pick-up hurtling into his wrecked hometown in Syria's Idlib province to grab his family's belongings a day after they fled.

The northwestern town of Khan Sheikhun is supposed to be protected by an internationally brokered ceasefire deal, but increased shelling and air strikes by regime forces last month have left its streets near empty.

"There was a truce and everything quietened down, and then suddenly the bombardment picked up again and we could no longer stay," Sarmani said, wearing a maroon bomber jacket.

"The bombardment was so close... I spent two hours hiding in the bathroom," the 36-year-old said, describing the events that pushed his family to flee last week.

Khan Sheikhun lies in the Idlib region, the last major bastion of opposition President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In September, rebel backer Turkey and regime ally Russia inked a deal to set up a buffer zone around the region, part of which runs just south of Khan Sheikhun.

Russia halted an imminent regime offensive many feared could lead to the Syrian conflict's worst bloodbath yet, in exchange for which Turkey was to remove jihadists from the edges of the region.

The agreement, which Moscow stressed at the time was temporary, prevented the offensive but jihadists have increased their footprint inside Idlib and Russia is losing patience.

Clashes and violations of the demilitarised zone have spiked in recent weeks and regime fire on Khan Sheikhun has led thousands to escape.

- 'No work, no hospitals' -

Since the start of February, more than 7,000 women, children and men have fled the town, mostly to other parts of Idlib, the United Nations says.

Sarmani said he, his wife and three daughters escaped Khan Sheikhun last week because of the bombardment, but also because the town has become unliveable.

"There's no work, no more people about, no hospitals, no doctors, no pharmacies, no basic infrastructure for living," said the accountant, whose family has relocated to Sarmada, 100 kilometres (62 miles) north.

Outside Khan Sheikhun, two lone donkeys stood in a field of bright green grass, as shelling sent a grey cloud billowing up into the sky.

Idlib is administered by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance led by jihadists of Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

"We hope we won't be displaced for long," Sarmani said, standing by a pick-up truck loaded with a large plastic rug, pillows, and a cooking gas canister.

Eight years into Syria's civil war, the Damascus regime has gained ground against rebels and jihadists with Russian military backing since 2015.

It now controls nearly two thirds of the country and has taken back control of most of the main commercial arteries.

- 'War planes' -

But a section of the highway linking the capital to the northern city of Aleppo remains out of its reach as it runs through Idlib, including through Khan Sheikhun.

At least 46 civilians including 18 children have been killed in bombardment on the town since the start of February, the civil defence says.

Elsewhere in Khan Sheikun, 29-year-old Ahmad Faraj and his family brought out what remained of their belongings from a temporary home shot through with rocket fire.

In their pick-up, the farmer from the nearby village of Zaka piled blue plastic chairs, and bags of pistachio husks his family would later burn for heating.

"When we came here about three months ago, the town was safe," Faraj said, dressed in a zipped dark blue hoodie.

But "for a month, there has been violent bombardment... The war planes have started up again," he said.

In order to stay close to his land, Faraj, his wife and child had headed to Morek, a town in the nearby buffer zone.

They hoped Turkish observers deployed there under the September deal would earn them some protection, but said conditions were likely to be tough.

"Running water, sewers, electricity -- there's absolutely none of that," he said.