Flare-up of violence displaces thousands in Idlib

Thousands of people have been displaced and dozens killed in one of the worst flare-ups to rattle a precarious truce deal in northwestern Syria, a monitor said Tuesday.

Twenty government troops and allied fighters were killed in attacks by a jihadist group on the edge of the Idlib region since Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The latest casualties were five government and allied fighters killed Tuesday near a planned buffer zone around rebel-held territory in neighbouring Idlib.

The Britain-based Observatory said the attack was led by Hurras al-Deen, an alliance formally linked to Al-Qaeda that includes Syrian and foreign jihadists.

At least nine jihadist fighters were killed in the clashes, among the deadliest since a deal was reached in September last year to spare the region a massive government assault.

Regime bombardment near Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, also killed two civilians on Tuesday, raising the civilian death toll to 42 since February 9, the Observatory said.

The Idlib region is mainly controlled by the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Syrian group led by former Al-Qaeda fighters, after they pushed back smaller, Turkey-backed rebel outfits last month.

Under the September 17 deal, all fighters in the zone were supposed to withdraw their heavy weapons and jihadists including HTS and Hurras al-Deen were supposed to leave.

Increased regime shelling on the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhun has sparked one of the largest waves of displacement since the truce agreement was struck in the Russian resort of Sochi.

“The UN remains deeply concerned for the safety and protection of thousands of people recently displaced from Khan Sheikhun following an increase in hostilities in the area,” David Swanson, spokesman for the UN Regional Office for the Syria Crisis in Amman said.

He said 7,033 women, children and men were displaced from Khan Sheikhun between 1 and 21 February.

The vast majority moved to districts within Idlib, while around 152 people were displaced to the town of Afrin in Aleppo province.

The Syria conflict has killed more than 360,000 people since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests and displaced more than half the country’s population

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