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Wednesday 21 February 2018

50,000 refugees at Turkish border after fleeing Syria fighting, says charity

Syrian troops advanced under the cover of heavy artillery bombardment and air power
Syrian troops advanced under the cover of heavy artillery bombardment and air power

About 50,000 people fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria have arrived at a Turkish border crossing, a charity says.

Islamic charity IHH said displaced Syrians began streaming toward the Bab al-Salam border crossing on Thursday.

Spokesman Serkan Nergis said IHH is setting up tent camps near the crossing to provide temporary shelter. The charity already runs about 10 camps for displaced Syrians along the frontier.

The border remains closed and it is not clear if any of the refugees would be admitted to Turkey.

Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a donors' conference in London on Thursday that as many as 80,000 could end up at the border.

The exodus came after Syrian troops backed by allied militias and intense Russian air strikes launched an offensive in northern Syria, apparently aimed at eventually encircling the contested city of Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and state news agency SANA said earlier that pro-government troops had captured the village of Rityan as part of a week-long offensive aimed at encircling the country's largest city.

Pro-government troops have recaptured several villages near the Turkish border, sending thousands of residents fleeing towards Turkey.

The territorial gains have driven a west-east wedge into rebel-held areas and brought the government a step closer to being able to encircle Aleppo.

Elsewhere, t he Syrian army and militias retook a town at the doorstep of Daraa, a contested city that lies between Damascus and the Jordan border, according to the Observatory .

The conquest opens several supply routes to Daraa, which is divided between government and opposition fighters, the British-based group said.

Daraa was the scene of some of the first protests against President Bashar Assad in 2011 and holds symbolic value in the uprising that has since collapsed into a vicious civil war.

Syria's official news agency said the offensive on Atman, north of Daraa, scattered rebel forces which it labels terrorists.

Troops advanced under the cover of heavy artillery bombardment and air power, the Observatory said.

Nato's secretary general said Russian air strikes that mainly target opposition forces are "undermining efforts to find a political solution to the conflict".

Jens Stoltenberg said increased Russian air force activity in Syria also is leading to increased violations of Turkish air space.

Mr Stoltenberg said: "This creates risks, heightened tensions and is of course a challenge for Nato because they're violations of Nato's air space."

He was speaking on the sidelines of an informal meeting of European Union defence ministers in Amsterdam.

The chief negotiator of the main opposition group said its delegation is unlikely to return to Geneva to take part in indirect peace talks because of Syria and Russia's "arrogant" bombardment campaign.

Mohammed Alloush, who represents the powerful Army of Islam group, said the opposition did not withdraw from the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva because it "didn't want to get blamed" for their failure.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said there would be a "temporary pause" in the indirect peace talks, adding the process will resume on February 25.

Mr Alloush said the Syrian government and Russia were behind the failure of the talks.

Press Association

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