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UN Steps Up Aid for Thousands of Syrians Fleeing War Zones

FILE - People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, Syria, March 15, 2018.

U.N. agencies are stepping up desperately needed aid for tens of thousands of civilians who have managed to escape from Syrian areas under fire. They say many of the people have been without humanitarian assistance for months, if not years.

In Idlib, a province in northwest Syria, about one million children are living amid escalating violence and attacks, according to the U.N. children's fund. Earlier this week, it said 17 children were killed when a building in which they sought shelter came under attack.

UNICEF is calling on fighters in Idlib to spare children so they do not meet the same fate as children in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, and Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria.

After five years under siege, UNICEF and other aid agencies gained access to children in some parts of eastern Ghouta. Aid workers were shocked at the scale of suffering and trauma, according to UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado.

"UNICEF staff described children and families in desperate condition, stunned from years of violence and deprivation," Mercado said. "Hygiene and sanitation conditions in the overcrowded shelters pose the most urgent risks to children. UNICEF is working to provide the children who have lived through years of siege with the services and protection they have been without for so long, and to make up for the years of lost learning. But even as we are able to reach children in more places, the violence continues just kilometers away."

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says 167,000 people in Afrin have fled to nearby villages, and between 50,000 and 70,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the city. While it is difficult to reach those inside the city, aid agencies are able to assist those who have left.

The World Health Organization reports it has deployed mobile medical clinics and critical health supplies to areas hosting the 167,000 people newly displaced from Afrin.