The Syrian government has not opened an actual "humanitarian corridor" for civilians in Syria's Idlib province, the last stronghold of the rebel groups, a U.K.-based organization told VOA Thursday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is documenting human rights violations in Syria, said that the regime's announcement earlier Thursday about a "humanitarian corridor" for civilians was false, and that there were no civilians left in the specified area; most have already left because of constant shelling by regime forces.
"This corridor is placed by the Russians and the Syrian regime for media purposes to say that civilians are fleeing toward regime-controlled areas," Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the observatory, told VOA.
Nearly 800,000 displaced
Abdulrahman added that airstrikes by the Russia and Syrian regimes had destroyed most areas in the northern Hama and southern Idlib countryside and had displaced almost 800,000 people to the border region between Syria and Turkey.
The Syrian government said civilians could use the corridor to move from rebel-held areas to government-held areas and newly captured territories in the northern Hama governorate.
"To mitigate the suffering of civilians the Syrian government is opening a humanitarian corridor in the Soran area in northern Hama countryside under the protection of the Syrian Arab Army to help civilians exit terrorist-controlled areas in northern Hama and southern Idlib," the Syrian State News Agency said, quoting a statement by the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Syrian regime calls all rebel groups "terrorists."
The observatory's Abdulrahman said, however, that no civilians would return to Syrian regime-controlled territories because they do not trust the regime and there are fears of retribution by regime forces.
The announcement about the corridor came one day after Syrian government forces took over the key town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib province. Rebel groups withdrew from it Wednesday. Footage of Russian and Syrian government soldiers parading in the town were circulating on social media.
A media activist from Idlib, who did not want to be named for security reasons, told VOA that at one time there were about 95,000 people living in Khan Sheikhoun.
"The town was almost empty and only dead animals were scattered in the street due to the heavy shelling and airstrikes," the activist said, adding that people had left days prior to the government's takeover and had moved to the border region with Turkey.
Idlib, the last rebel-held province in northwest Syria, is home to 3 million civilians, many of them displaced from other parts in Syria. Idlib is also home to thousands of militants, including foreign fighters competing for influence and control in the province.
Last September, a deal was struck between Russia and Turkey in which Russia guaranteed it would persuade the Syrian regime to avoid a planned military operation in Idlib in exchange for Turkey's assurance it would prevent the rebel groups from launching attacks against the regime. As part of the deal, Turkey also established 12 observation points in southern Idlib and northern Hama.
But the deal seems on the verge of collapse. The Syrian regime carried out a large-scale military attack on Idlib on April 30, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes and killing more than 2,000, most of them civilians, according to local sources.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.