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'Great fear' in Idlib ahead of looming offensive — health chief

By AFP - Sep 08,2018 - Last updated at Sep 08,2018

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against a Syrian military operation in the rebel-held Idlib province of northwest Syria in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Friday (Reuters photo)

GENEVA — There is "great fear" among residents and medical workers in Idlib as the threat of a large-scale military operation looms over Syria's last major rebel bastion, the province's health chief said.

"I fear we are about to face the most catastrophic crisis in our war," Munzer Al Khalil told AFP in an interview in Geneva late Friday.

The orthopaedic surgeon, who heads the health directorate in the opposition region, said he had travelled to the Swiss city to urge diplomats and UN officials to do more to avert a "catastrophe".

Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the final major chunk of Syrian territory still under opposition control. It is home to some three million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the United Nations.

Damascus, which has retaken a succession of rebel bastions this year, has set its sights on Idlib, which is held by a complex array of rebels and extremists.

But a major military operation is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated.

"There is a great fear of the advancement of the regime, since there is no other Idlib. There is no other place to go," said Khalil, who was due to travel back to Syria over the weekend.

On Saturday, Russian air strikes against the rebel bastion reached their "most violent" in a month, a monitor said.

The spike in violence came after Russia, fellow regime ally Iran and rebel-backer Turkey on Friday failed to immediately agree on a solution to avert an imminent government offensive.

 

Surge in suicides

 

Khalil noted a hike in attacks on hospitals in Idlib — there have been two in the past week alone — warning this could mark the run-up to a full-scale assault.

"When they decide to take an area, they first attack hospitals," he said.

"I am worried this has already started."

Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons during the conflict, and Khalil said there was concern such weapons could be used in Idlib.

"What we really fear are [conventional] attacks on vital, crowded locations like a market, a school, a hospital. When these are attacked the casualties are much higher."

The UN has estimated that a military offensive against Idlib could force as many as 800,000 people to flee their homes, in what would be one of the largest displacements yet in Syria's seven-year war.

Khalil said his main fear was that there would be a massive exodus towards Turkey with people finding themselves squeezed between advancing Syrian troops and a closed frontier.

"I fear there will be people dying trying to cross the border," he said.

Khalil said Idlib's health system was in shambles, with the few remaining doctors forced to work in damaged hospitals with dwindling supplies for surgeries and patients often forced to take expired medicines.

The threat of attack is taking a toll on the mental health of residents, he said, pointing out that the suicide rate, which had previously been close to zero, was now at around nine cases a month.

That number has increased "significantly in the past six months", as fears of a military assault grow stronger, he said, adding that women and girls between the ages of 16 and 20 accounted for most of the cases.

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