Opposition group Ariha Today says this picture shows the area where a Syrian government bomber crashed in a town in Idlib province. Picture: EPA
Opposition group Ariha Today says this picture shows the area where a Syrian government bomber crashed in a town in Idlib province. Picture: EPA
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Geneva — Negotiations are urgently needed to avert "a civilian bloodbath" in Syria’s last major rebel bastion Idlib, the UN said on Thursday, after regime forces shelled the area ahead of an expected assault.

"The war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib," the head of the UN humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, told reporters in Geneva.

President Bashar al-Assad has warned that the northwestern province would be his military’s next priority.

Artillery and rocket fire reportedly slammed into rebel and jihadist positions in the area earlier on Thursday.

Egeland said he remained "hopeful" that diplomatic efforts under way could stave off a major ground offensive that would force hundreds of thousands to flee.

Idlib is home to about 2.5 million people, up to half of whom are rebels and civilians transferred en masse from other territory that fell to Syrian troops after intense assaults.

A military operation in Idlib would pose a particular humanitarian nightmare because there is no opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to, Egeland said. "I cannot see evacuations to other opposition-controlled areas," he said, explaining that contingency plans were being formed to deal with a range of scenarios.

At Thursday’s humanitarian taskforce meeting, ambassadors discussed options to ramp up assistance in the event of additional massive displacement, Egeland said, noting that "it is very hard to take on more mouths to feed and there is no [additional] shelter available" in the area. Ensuring that Turkey kept its border open for those who might flee an assault by Damascus would be a priority, he said. "The scenario that we really need to avoid at any cost is the big war coming to civilian areas [in Idlib]," he said.

Egeland added that he was "heartened" to hear diplomats from Assad allies Russia and Iran as well as opposition backer Turkey say they were committed to avoiding a large-scale offensive.

AFP


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