UN warns of 'catastrophe' as 160,000 flee southern Syria push

Number of displaced people jumps amid UN alarm at reports of fleeing civilians being forced to pay for safe passage.

    The United Nations has warned of a looming "catastrophe" in southern Syria, as it raised the number of people fleeing a fierce government offensive aimed at retaking rebel-held areas to 160,000. 

    Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN's high Commissioner for human rights, said in a statement on Friday that there was a "grave risk that intensified fighting will see many civilians trapped", condemning "[how] civilians in Syria continue to be used as pawns by the various parties".

    Launched on June 19, the Syrian government's military push is intended to recapture the southern provinces of Deraa, Quneitra and parts of Sweida, still mostly held by opposition fighters.

    With backing by Russian air support, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have retaken territory and continue to progress southwards where the last pockets of opposition remain.

    Al-Hussein said his office received reports that "in the last few days, civilians at some government checkpoints in the southern-eastern and western parts of Deraa have only been allowed through to government-held areas in Deraa city and Sweida governorate for a fee."

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    "To add to the bleak situation facing civilians, there are also reports that ISIL fighters in control of the Yarmouk Basic area in the western part of Deraa governorate are not allowing civilians to leave the areas under their control."

    Zeid emphasised the warring factions' responsibility towards civilians under international law which mandates that they "do their utmost to protect civilians … [and] provide safe passage to those wishing to flee."

    Separately, the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Friday that the surge in fighting over the past two days had led to the displacement of an estimated 160,000 people - more than three times as previously reported.

    "Many of those that have been displaced in the recent surge in hostilities are reported to have moved towards the Jordanian border and towards Quneitra, close to the Golan Heights area," it said in a statement.

    Earlier on Friday, a temporary truce in Deraa between government forces and the rebel group Free Syrian Army (FSA), brokered by Russia and Jordan, ended at noon local time (09:00 GMT).

    Later in the day, a Jordanian official told Reuters news agency that a new ceasefire had been agreed upon by the Syrian government and rebels, but did not offer further details.

    However, a US Department of State official said Washington could neither confirm nor deny the truce report and described the situation in southern Syria as "grim", with Syrian government forces and Russia continuing to bomb the area. 

     

    Deraa province is a strategic region that extends along the border with Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights. Until recently, it was part of a US-backed-and-negotiated truce.

    In the town of al-Musayfirah in eastern Deraa, air attacks that targeted an underground shelter left 17 dead, including 11 children, the worst single incident since the Syrian government offensive began in the area on June 19, according to DPA news agency.

    That brings to at least 96 the total number of civilians killed, including 19 children, since the offensive in Deraa began, according to reports.

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    The violence has raised concerns about the humanitarian situation in the province.

    Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV said Syrian government troops had opened three crossing points in rebel-held territory for civilians wishing to flee to the other side.

    Syrians fleeing the fighting and heading towards neighbouring Jordan have been denied entry, with authorities there claiming to not have the resources to deal with a new wave of refugees

    "Jordan already has 1.3 million Syrians. Our country has reached its maximum capacity. Jordan has been shouldering this responsibility, and I must say, we've been doing so alone," Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on Thursday. 

    Deraa is considered the cradle of the anti-government uprising that erupted in Syria in March 2011, after a series of arrests sparked protests that spread across the country.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


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