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'Humanitarian disaster' unfolding in Syria's embattled Idlib, UN chief warns

Omar Haj Kadour, AFP | A civilian and members of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets, check the site of a reported air strike by regime forces and their allies on Maaret al-Noman in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, on May 30.

UN chief Antonio Guterres called on Russia and Turkey Tuesday to "stabilize the situation" in the Syrian province of Idlib, rocked by intense fighting that the UN body warned is creating a humanitarian disaster.

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"I am deeply concerned about the escalation of the fighting in Idlib and the situation is especially dangerous given the involvement of an increased number of actors. Yet again civilians are paying a horrific price," Guterres told reporters.

His comments came ahead of a UN Security Council session on Tuesday to discuss the situation.

The world is facing "a humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes," Mark Lowcock, the UN's humanitarian chief, told the council.

Parts of Aleppo, Hama and Idlib -- the last bastion of jihadist forces in Syria -- are supposed to be protected from a massive regime offensive by a buffer zone deal that Russia and Turkey signed in September.

But it was never fully implemented as jihadists refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarized zone.

In January, jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) -- led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate -- extended its administrative control over the region.

The Syrian government and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region in Syria's northwest since late April.

"Over the last six weeks, the conduct of hostilities has resulted in more than 230 civilian deaths, including 69 women and 81 children. Hundreds more have been injured," Lowcock said, adding that an estimated 330,000 have been forced to flee their homes and move toward Turkey since early last month.

"Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure need to stop and they need to stop immediately," Lowcock said.

Several diplomats indicated that the aim of the council meeting was to "renew attention" on Idlib and maintain pressure on Russia and Syria to stop their attacks on civilians.

Guterres appealed to Russia and Turkey, as signatories of the September deal, to stabilize the situation "without delay."

The latest meeting

"There is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. The solution must be political," he said, stressing the need to respect human rights and international humanitarian law "even in the fight against terrorism."

Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded that "we never attack civilian installations," and added that the September accord is being "fully implemented."

His Turkish counterpart disagreed.

"Unfortunately, ceasefire violations are still on the rise. Consequences of the attacks by the regime against civilians are dire," said Ankara's Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioglu.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 14 pro-government forces and 41 jihadists and rebel fighters were killed in clashes on Tuesday.

The fighting flared on the edge of Hama province when HTS launched a dawn attack on regime positions, the observatory said.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, explained to the council the contrasting priorities of Russia and Turkey.

HTS's presence in the de-escalation area "is not tolerable" for Moscow, while for Ankara, "time is required to effectively isolate and address HTS's most hardline fighters," she said.

Tuesday's Council meeting occurred at the request of Belgium, Germany, the US and Kuwait.

In May, the council held several meetings on Syria and the situation in Idlib.

Syria's war began in 2011 and has now claimed more than 370,000 lives. Several million more have been displaced.

(AFP)

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