UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian offensive are being squeezed into ever smaller areas near Turkeyâ€™s border â€œunder horrendous conditionsâ€ in freezing temperatures that are killing babies and young children, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Wednesday.
Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council that â€œthe unfolding humanitarian catastropheâ€ in northwest Idlib province, which is the last major rebel stronghold, has â€œoverwhelmedâ€ efforts to provide aid.
He said nearly 900,000 people have been displaced since Dec. 1 when the government offensive began, more than 500,000 of them children.
â€œMany are on foot or on the backs of trucks in below-freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow,â€ Lowcock said. â€œThey are moving into increasingly crowded areas they think will be safer. But in Idlib, nowhere is safe.â€
Lowock, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said almost 50,000 people have taken shelter under trees and in open spaces. â€œI am getting daily reports of babies and other young children dying in the cold,â€ he added.
U.N. special envoy Geir Pedersen echoed Secretary-General Antonio Guterresâ€™ expression of alarm on Tuesday at the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation â€œand the tragic suffering of civilians.â€
â€œHostilities are now approaching densely populated areas such as Idlib city and Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which has among the highest concentration of displaced civilians in northwest Syria and also serves as a humanitarian lifeline,â€ he said.
Pedersen warned: â€œThe potential for further mass displacement and even more catastrophic human suffering is apparent, as an increasing number of people are hemmed into an ever-shrinking space.â€
He said Russia and Turkey, as sponsors of a cease-fire in Idlib, â€œcan and must play a key role in finding a way to deescalate the situation now,â€ though meetings between delegations of the two countries in Ankara, Munich and Moscow in recent days and contacts between the two presidents have not produced results.
â€œTo the contrary, public statements from different quarters, Syrian and international, suggest an imminent danger of further escalation,â€ Pedersen said in a video briefing from Geneva.
The United States, United Kingdom, Germany and others stressed that three-way talks with Syria supporters Russia and Iran and opposition backer Turkey, which led to a de-escalation zone in Idlib, arenâ€™t working.
German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said that since the so-called Astana formula isnâ€™t working, itâ€™s now time for the U.N. to step in and â€œitâ€™s time also for the secretary-general also to step up to the plate.â€
â€œWe have an immense responsibility that we face here as the United Nations, as the Security Council to stop what is happening,â€ he said. â€œWe must spare no effort.â€
Heusgen also urged Russia to stop supporting Syria.
â€œIf you tell the Syrians that there is no longer military support to the Syrian regime, they will have to stop the onslaught on their own population,â€ he said.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded: â€œWe will not stop supporting the legitimate government of Syria which is conducting a legitimate fight against international terrorism.â€
He defended the Astana process as playing â€œthe key role,â€ saying that â€œthereâ€™s no other mechanism for a political dialogue.â€
Nebenzia supported Pedersenâ€™s efforts to get agreement from Syriaâ€™s government and opposition on an agenda so a constitutional committee can start discussing a new charter for the country, which is seen by many as a first step toward elections and formation of a new government.
â€œWhat needs to stop is protection of fighters, insurgents,â€ he said.
Britainâ€™s ambassador, Karen Pierce, said Russia and Syria need to stop â€œindiscriminate and inhumane attacksâ€ in the northwest that are killing and injuring innocent civilians.
During closed consultations after the open meeting, French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said he proposed that the Security Council issue a statement on the escalating situation but Russia blocked it.
According to council diplomats, the proposed statement called for a cessation of hostilities in northwestern Syria, but Russia insisted on an additional line that would have allowed the fight against â€œterroristsâ€ to continue. That was unacceptable to the vast majority of council members, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the consultations were private.