Emergency services carry a body of a person killed in a government airstrike in the city of Idlib, Syria, Feb. 11, 2020.
Emergency services carry a body of a person killed in a government airstrike in the city of Idlib, Syria, Feb. 11, 2020.

GENEVA - U.N. agencies report an unprecedented number of people are fleeing for their lives as fighting intensifies among Syrian forces, their Russian allies and rebel groups in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.

The United Nations says nearly 700,000 people have fled Idlib and surrounding areas in just over the last 10 weeks. Most are women and children. Many have been forced to flee several times since Syria and its Russian allies launched a military offensive nine months ago to retake Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country.

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The advance of forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad into rebel-held areas of Idlib and Aleppo province has also sparked a large scale humanitarian crisis

Jens Laerke is a spokesman for U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He says this is the largest and fastest-growing displacement in the country since Syria’s civil war broke out nearly nine years ago.

“This latest displacement compounds an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground there and protection, shelter, water, food, sanitation and hygiene material, health, and emergency education are all urgent priorities,”  said Laerke.

Aid agencies are increasing their humanitarian operations in response to the unfolding tragedy. A massive cross-border operation between Turkey and Syria is under way. This month alone, the United Nations says more than 230 trucks carrying life-saving assistance have been sent from Turkey into conflict-ridden northwest Syria.

Civilians fleeing the fighting have fewer and ever-smaller areas of relative safety available to them. The U.N. refugee agency says the displaced are living in overcrowded camps and settlements.

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There are about 500 troops in the area who, according to US officials, are protecting the region’s oil fields and preventing IS from reemerging

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic says shelter is critically needed, especially now, as thousands of homeless people have to contend with freezing cold weather.

“As you know, Storm Karim has hit this region about two days ago," Mahecic said. "Today, there is snow, rain and wind and it feels like below zero in terms of the temperatures. So, this has already exacerbated the dire humanitarian conditions and will continue throughout the week.”

The conflict in Syria has caused the biggest displacement crisis in the world. The UNHCR says more than 5.5 million Syrians live as refugees in the region and more than 6 million Syrians are displaced within the country.

The United Nations estimates 2.8 million people in Syria’s northwest conflict zone need humanitarian aid. The world body is appealing for $336 million to provide aid for 800,000 people over the next six months.

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