Russian and Syrian forces intensified air strikes and ground shelling in northwestern Syria overnight in one of the heaviest assaults on the last rebel bastion in recent months, opposition members, rescuers and residents said on Thursday.
The targetedvillages and towns in northern Hama and southern Idlib fall within ademilitarized zone agreed last September between Russia and Turkey. Earlierthis week Washington warned violence in the buffer zone "will result inthe destabilization of the region".Since Tuesday the Russian and Syrianmilitary attacks have forced thousands of civilians to flee to camps furthernorth along the Turkish border and damaged four medical facilities, accordingto Idlib civil defence officials and a U.S. medical aid organisation working inthe area.
"Medicalfacilities are being evacuated, leaving the most vulnerable with no access tomedical care. We are on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe," KhaulaSawah, vice president of the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and ReliefOrganizations -USA (UOSSM US) said in a statement on Wednesday.
Syrian armyhelicopters have dropped barrel bombs, which are drums or cylinders packed withexplosives and shrapnel that cause indiscriminate destruction, killing at least15 civilians and injured dozens, rescuers in Idlib province said. Opposition-runcivil defence agencies say hundreds of people, mostly civilians, have beenkilled by Russian and Syrian strikes since the September deal which prevented apotentially devastating offensive on Idlib and nearby areas controlled byrebels and now home to over 3 million people.
Syrian state media,quoting army sources, blamed rebels for the attacks and said it had targeted"terrorist groups" in towns in northern Hama including Kfr Nabouda.
Turkey, which hassupported the rebels and has troops to monitor the truce, has been negotiatingwith Moscow to halt the strikes with little success.
A military defector told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the latest campaign could signal a ground offensive aimed at taking control of territory in northern rural Hama province and southern Idlib countryside.