HASAKEH: An elderly Syrian woman carries a toddler as others gather at the Washukanni camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the mainly Kurdish northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh on Friday.-AFP

BEIRUT: Civilians
on Friday packed a road leading out of a flashpoint town in northwest Syria,
where two weeks of heightened regime and Russian bombardment has displaced
235,000 people.  Pick-up trucks carrying
mattresses, clothes and house-hold appliances ferried entire families out of
southern Idlib province, most heading towards safer areas further north, said
an AFP correspondent on the ground. 

mid-December, regime forces and their Russian allies have heightened
bombardment on the southern edge of the final major opposition-held pocket of
Syria, eight years into the country's devastating war. The latest violence in
the jihadist-dominated Idlib region has killed scores of civilians, despite an
August ceasefire deal and international calls for a de-escalation.

More than 235,000
people fled the area between December 12 and 25, mostly from the beleaguered
city of Maaret Al-Numan which has been left "almost empty", according
to the United Nations' humanitarian coordination agency OCHA. OCHA spokesman
David Swanson said Friday that more than 80 per cent of those who have fled
southern Idlib this month are women and children.

"I can't
live in the camps," said Umm Abdo, a mother of five who recently arrived
in a displacement camp in the town of Dana, north of Idlib's provincial
capital. "The rain is very strong, and we need heating... clothes, and
food," she said, her tired eyes showing through her veil.

Fierce battles,
squalid camps

The Idlib region
hosts some three million people, including many displaced by years of violence
in other parts of Syria. It is dominated by the country's former Al-Qaeda
affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, whose chief this week urged jihadists and allied
rebels to head to the frontlines and battle "the Russian occupiers"
and the regime.

Since December
19, HTS jihadists and their rebel allies have been locked in fierce battles
with regime forces around Maaret al-Numan. Damascus loyalists have seized
dozens of towns and villages from jihadists in clashes that have killed
hundreds of fighters on both sides.

The advances have
brought them to within four kilometers (two and a half miles) of Maaret
Al-Numan, one of Idlib's largest urban centers. 
According to OCHA, ongoing battles have further amplified 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 mass displacement
could not come at a worse time, with heavy rainfall flooding squalid camps for
the displaced. "Being forced to move in winter months exacerbates existing
vulnerabilities, particularly of the women, children, elderly, people with disabilities
and other vulnerable groups," OCHA said.

Aid suspended

mid-December, the fighting has killed nearly 80 civilians, according to the
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor. US President Donald Trump
reacted to the violence in a tweet on Thursday, saying that "Russia,
Syria, and Iran are killing, or on their way to killing, thousands of innocent
civilians in Idlib Province".

He added that
Turkey was "working hard to stop this carnage". The escalation has
forced aid groups to suspend operations in the area, exasperating already dire
humanitarian conditions, OCHA said.

Idlib's residents
mainly depend on critical cross-border aid, which came under threat last week
after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have
extended such deliveries for a year.  The
move raised fears that vital UN-funded aid could stop entering Idlib from
January unless an alternative agreement is reached.

The Syrian regime
pulled out of its last outposts in Idlib province in 2015, following fierce
battles with rebels and Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists. The Damascus regime,
which now controls 70 percent of Syria, has repeatedly vowed to take back the
region.  Backed by Moscow, Damascus
launched a blistering offensive against Idlib in April, killing around 1,000
civilians and displacing more than 400,000 people.

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. France on Tuesday called for an "immediate de-escalation", warning of deteriorating humanitarian conditions.  The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began with anti-government demonstrations brutally crushed by security forces. -AFP