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'Almost empty': More than 235,000 flee southern Idlib as bombing intensifies

Russian-backed offensive prompts more civilians to flee as Assad's forces gain ground on last rebel-held province
Tens of thousands of people have fled renewed assault on Idlib (MEE/Mustafa Dahnon)

More than 235,000 people have fled their homes in Syria's Idlib province over the last two weeks, as air raids by Syrian forces and their allies pound the country's last remaining rebel stronghold.

The mass displacement took place between 12 -25 December, the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA said on Friday, and had left the Maaret al-Numan region in southern Idlib "almost empty".

"With the latest escalation of violence in northwest Syria, civilians in Idlib governorate are again suffering from the devastating consequences of hostilities," it said.

Since mid-December, Syrian and Russian forces have intensified their bombing campaign on southern Idlib despite an August ceasefire deal and calls for de-escalation from Turkey, France and the UN.

The region is controlled by the rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and is home to three million people, including many already displaced amid the country's civil war.

'Civilians in Idlib governorate are again suffering from the devastating consequences of hostilities,'

- United Nations

Since 19 December, forces supporting the government of President Bashar al-Assad have seized dozens of towns and villages from amid clashes that have killed hundreds on both sides.

The advances have brought them less than four kilometres (two miles) from Maaret al-Numan, one of Idlib's largest urban centres.

According to OCHA, continuing battles have increased displacement from the area and the nearby town of Saraqeb.

"People from Saraqab and its eastern countryside are now fleeing in anticipation of fighting directly affecting their communities next," it said.

"The bombardment has not stopped… we see it every minute," Idlib resident Muhannad al-Ibrahim told Middle East Eye earlier this month.

"We are afraid. Death haunts us every day."

'Don't do it'

Assad, who now controls 70 percent of Syria, has repeatedly pledged to take back the area.

Backed by Moscow, Damascus in April launched the blistering offensive against Idlib, in which about 1,000 civilians have been killed and more than 400,000 displaced.

Moscow and Damascus deny claims of indiscriminate bombing of civilians, saying say they are fighting "terrorists".

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Last month, the New York Times published a report looking into Russian air raids on Idlib over a 12-hour period, and found that the Russian air force repeatedly bombed hospitals.

Despite a ceasefire announced in August, the bombardment has continued, prompting Turkey this week to press for a fresh ceasefire deal during talks in Moscow.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump warned Syria and its allies against killing civilians as they renew their assault on the country's last major opposition bastion.

"Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of inocent (sic) civilians in Idlib Province. Don't do it! Turkey is working hard to stop this carnage," Trump tweeted.

The war in Syria, now approaching its ninth year, has devastated much of the country. An estimated half a million people have been killed and millions have been forced to live as refugees.