UN: Syrian fighters burning vital farmland is 'weapon of war'

UN says both rebels and Russia-backed Syrian government blame each other for destruction of crops and land in Idlib.

    UN: Syrian fighters burning vital farmland is 'weapon of war'
    Displaced Syrians in an olive grove in Atmeh town, in Syria's northwest province of Idlib where trees and crops have been set alight [File: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

    Thousands of hectares of vital crops and farmland have been set on fire by fighters in northwest Syria in a campaign that has turned food supplies into a "weapon of war", the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said.

    Satellite images released by campaigners last week showed fields, orchards and olive groves burning in the region where Syria's Russia-backed army has been assaulting rebels in their last major stronghold.

    Both rebels and the Syrian government have blamed each other for the destruction, WFP said.

    "Not only are people displaced, lives lost but now farmlands vital for the food security of the region - crops such as barley, wheat, and vegetables - have been destroyed," WFP spokesperson Herve Verhoosel said on Tuesday in Geneva.

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    "These crops burning and damage to land and livelihoods will disrupt the sensitive food production cycles and could aggravate the food security situation in the north-west for the near future," he said.

    The WFP official said the latest outbreak in violence in Idlib and northern Hama has resulted in dozens of casualties and forced at least 300,000 to flee their homes.

    "The most important thing for us, it is not acceptable to take one more time the civilian population hostage, to basically use food, distribution of food as a weapon of war," Verhoosel said.

    According to the WFP, less than 5 percent of Syria's current crop had been affected. Fires had also broken out in other areas away from the fighting, amid high temperatures.

    Idlib and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia are under the control of Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, which the Syrian government has vowed to destroy.

    INTERACTIVE: Syria control map March 13, 2019

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies