DANA, Syria: An injured man sits alongside children in the back of a truck as part of a convoy of vehicles of people from the south of Idlib province fleeing bombardment by the government and its allies on the northwestern region, heading northwards through the town of Dana yesterday.-AFP

MAARET AL-NUMAN, Syria: Thin mattresses, children's toys, a gas heater: Abu Ismail packed a pick-up truck with scant belongings before fleeing a northwest Syria town nearly emptied of residents by recent regime attacks. "I don't know where I am going, if I will find a house for my family, or what will happen to us," the 42-year-old father of seven told AFP, plumes of smoke rising around him.

Tens of thousands of people like Abu Ismail have fled the Maaret Al-Numan region, located in jihadist-held Idlib province, since December 16, following an uptick in air strikes, according to the United Nations. Thousands more are still trying to leave violence-plagued southern Idlib towards safer areas further north but steady bombing has made the exit both dangerous and difficult, the UN says.

"I don't even wish this on our enemies," Abu Ismail said of the air strikes pummelling his hometown. The Damascus government, which controls nearly 70 per cent of Syria, has repeatedly vowed to take back Idlib from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist alliance led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Despite a ceasefire announced in August, it has intensified attacks on southern Idlib in recent days, while ground clashes with jihadists and allied rebels have flared, leaving more than 170 dead on both sides. The escalation has left Maaret Al-Numan in tatters. Inside the town, mangled metal rods, shattered glass and chunks of rubble are strewn across the ground.

Bombed-out storefronts and crumbling buildings spill onto empty sidewalks. Several health facilities have shut down, bakeries have closed and schools have mostly been suspended since late November, according to the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA.

'Happening all over again'

The Idlib region hosts some three million people, more than half of whom have been displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria. Abu Ossama is one of them. The 29-year-old arrived in Maaret Al-Numan around two years ago after fleeing Homs province, now under the control of government forces. Along with his wife and four children, he is once again throwing furniture, clothes and appliances into a pick-up truck.

"The same sequence is happening all over again," he said. "We are heading towards the unknown, with no house, no shelter and no assistance." He spoke to AFP as rescue workers known as the White Helmets helped him empty his apartment in Maaret Al-Numan. The rescue group had also arranged a vehicle to drive the man and his family to safety. "We are leaving today under shelling, fearing the warplanes that never leave the sky," Abu Ossama said.

"We don't know what danger is waiting for us on the road." Many of those fleeing Maaret Al-Numan are heading to over-stretched camps further north, near the border with Turkey. Others are taking shelter in schools, reception halls and mosques in Idlib city and other urban centers far away from the fighting, according to OCHA. The mass displacement could not come at a worse time of year, as heavy winter rains flood squalid camps for the displaced.

'Die of hunger'

Russia and China on Friday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended for a year cross-border aid deliveries to four million Syrians, many of them in the Idlib region. The move, slammed by the United States and aid groups, raised fears that UN-funded assistance could stop entering opposition-held parts of Syria from January unless an alternative agreement is found.

Four million Syrians, including many in Idlib, directly benefit from the deliveries, among a total of 11 million receiving international aid inside the country eight years into its devastating war. "We only eat and drink when we receive help," said Hassan Abu Wael who has been living in a displacement camp in northern Idlib since he fled Maaret al-Numan two months ago.

"If aid stops reaching us because of Russia, while we live inside flooded camps, then we will bid farewell to this world." Nearby, 60-year-old Umm Abdo expressed a similar concern. "You want the people to die of hunger?" she asked rhetorically.

Meanwhile, Regime forces have seized dozens of towns and villages in northwest Syria from jihadists following days of violent clashes, fuelling an exodus of civilians, a war monitor said yesterday.

The fresh advances in Idlib province bring regime loyalists closer to capturing one of the largest urban centers in Syria's last major opposition bastion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Residents of the southern Idlib town flooded out of the area fearing further advances, an AFP correspondent there said. The Observatory said more than 30,000 people had fled the flashpoint area in southern Idlib in recent days.

Abu Akram, a resident, said rescue workers and local relief groups were struggling to get families out. "Everybody is working at full capacity but they can't handle such a large number of people," the father of five said after he couldn't find a vehicle to drive his own family further north.

The jihadist-dominated Idlib region hosts some three million people including many displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria. The Damascus regime has repeatedly vowed to take back the area and bombardment has continued despite a ceasefire announced in August.

Heightened regime and Russian bombardment on the Maaret Al-Numan region since December 16 has forced tens of thousands of vulnerable people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.

The UN has called for "immediate de-escalation" and warned of further mass displacement if the violence continues. "Nowhere is safe. If we stay inside our homes, or if we flee outside, we will die either way," said Abu Akram. Damascus loyalists have since Thursday been locked in battles with jihadists and allied rebels, seizing a total of 25 towns and villages from their control, according to the Observatory.

Four days of fighting has killed 103 militants as well as 71 regime loyalists, bringing the total toll to more than 170 dead on both sides, added the monitor, which is based in Britain and relies on an extensive network inside Syria. The Idlib region is controlled by the country's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.

Pro-government forces launched a blistering offensive against the region in April, killing around 1,000 civilians and displacing more than 400,000 people from their homes. Syria's war has killed over 370,000 people and displaced millions since beginning in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests. - AFP