The U.N. peace envoy for Syria on Friday called for evacuation corridors to be opened for civilians to flee a looming Syrian offensive in rebel-held Idlib province that could lead to a "horrific and bloody battle."
The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian disaster if Syria forces, backed by Russia and Iran, launch an all-out attack in Idlib, the last major rebel bastion.
"People should be granted safe passage to places of their own choosing if they want to leave," Staffan de Mistura told a Security Council meeting on the crisis in Idlib.
"We must allow the opening of sufficient number of protected voluntary evacuation routes for civilians in any direction: east, north and south," he said, adding that the United Nations would establish a presence there.
The council was meeting as the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey agreed during a summit in Tehran to work in a "spirit of cooperation" to stabilize the situation in Idlib.
The three countries are guarantors of the Astana process, a track of talks on Syria's war launched after Russia's 2015 military intervention, which led to the creation of de-escalation zones.
De Mistura told the council that he was ready to make proposals on separating al-Qaida-linked groups fighting in Idlib from other rebels in a bid to ensure the protection of civilians.
The U.N. envoy is scheduled to hold talks with the three guarantors next week in Geneva on the crisis in Idlib.
More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria's seven-year war, but U.N. diplomats fear the assault on Idlib could trigger one of the worst bloodbaths of the conflict.
"Any battle for Idlib could be, would be, a horrific and bloody battle," said De Mistura, speaking by video-conference from Geneva.
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