U.N.: Tens of Thousands Flee New Syria Offensives


Tens of thousands have fled new regime offensives in Syria, the U.N. said Tuesday, as Russian air strikes were reported to have so far killed 370 people, many of them civilians.

The mass exodus was focused south of Syria's second city Aleppo, one of five areas where regime troops have launched renewed attacks since Russia began its air war on September 30.

"Around 35,000 people are reported to have been displaced from... the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo city, following government offensives over the last few days," said Vanessa Huguenin, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

She said many of the displaced were living with host families and in informal settlements in the west of the province.

"People urgently need food and basic household and shelter items" especially as the weather gets colder, Huguenin said.

Syria's conflict has left more than 250,000 dead and forced millions from their homes since March 2011, sparking a mass migration of refugees that has left Europe struggling to cope.

Russia has carried out more than 500 air raids in support of President Bashar Assad's forces and a monitoring group on Tuesday gave the first estimate for the total number of dead in the strikes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 370 people had been killed, including more than 120 civilians.

Among them were 45 rebels and civilians killed on Monday in a series of Russian strikes in the north of government stronghold Latakia province, it said.

- Regime targets key highway -

Dozens were also wounded in Monday's raids, some of the deadliest yet in the Russian campaign, and a rebel commander from a moderate opposition group was among the dead, the Observatory said.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow's air war demonstrated it could counter any "terrorist" threats.

"The operation has confirmed that Russia is ready to adequately and effectively respond to terrorist and any other threats to our country," Putin said in a speech to military and intelligence commanders at the Kremlin.

The Observatory said Russian air strikes on Tuesday had targeted the provinces of Homs, Idlib, Damascus and Aleppo.

As many as 100,000 people were fleeing the army's ground assaults in Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia provinces, it said.

Syrian activist Maamun al-Khatieb said thousands had fled fierce Russian bombardment and "the fear that Iranian militias would storm their villages."

Iran, a key Assad ally, has reportedly sent hundreds of troops to fight alongside his forces.

Aleppo, once Syria's economic hub, has been a key focus of the fighting. Since 2012, the war-ravaged city has been divided between government forces in the west and rebels in the east, with the situation largely reversed in the surrounding countryside. 

But last Friday, government forces began a new offensive south of the city, attacking areas near the strategic Aleppo-Damascus highway.

The Observatory said Tuesday that regime forces had seized five villages in the area since the offensive began.

But Syria's al-Watan daily, which is close to the regime, said the army had taken 16 villages and an area totaling some 100 square kilometers (40 square miles).

It said the operation would "cut militant reinforcement routes between south Aleppo province and east Idlib province and take the international highway from Aleppo to Hama."

- 'Whatever they could carry' -

The highway that runs from Aleppo to Damascus via Hama and Homs provinces appears to be the main target of several of the government offensives launched in recent weeks.

In Hama, much of the fighting has centered on an area close to the road, and in Homs, the government has been fighting to take villages along the highway just north of the provincial capital.

In Homs, thousands of people have fled from a string of villages since the Syrian army's offensive there began on October 15, said Hassaan Abu Nuh, an activist in the town of Talbisseh. 

"They've spread throughout the outskirts of Homs... those who left took whatever they could carry," he told AFP via the Internet.

There has also been heavy fighting for the Sahl al-Ghab region between Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces, with government troops seeking to prevent rebels who control Idlib province from being able to attack Latakia.

Russia insists its air campaign is intended to target the Islamic State group and others it describes as "terrorists."

But rebels and their backers accuse Moscow of seeking to prop up Assad, a longtime ally, and accuse Russia of striking moderate and Islamist opposition forces rather than just jihadists.

The Observatory said Tuesday some 243 opposition forces had been killed in Russian air strikes since September 30, including 52 from IS. 

At least 127 civilians have been killed in the strikes, including 36 children and 34 women, it said.

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