Residents of villages and towns in southern parts of Idlib province have been fleeing while regime forces have been pushing into the northwestern province of Idlib toward a rebel-held town, Maaret al Numan.

Civilians ride in a truck as they flee Maaret al Numan, Syria, ahead of a regime offensive, December 23, 2019.
Civilians ride in a truck as they flee Maaret al Numan, Syria, ahead of a regime offensive, December 23, 2019. (AP)

Syrian regime forces pressed ahead Monday with a new military assault on the country's last rebel stronghold that began last week, an offensive that has set off a mass exodus of civilians fleeing to safer areas near the Turkish border.

Under the cover of air strikes and heavy shelling, Syrian regime forces have been pushing into the northwestern province of Idlib toward a rebel-held town, Maaret al Numan. The town sits on a key highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.

The immediate goal of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad's forces appeared to be reopening the highway, which has been closed by the rebels since 2012.

TRT World's Yasin Eken has more.

Risk of humanitarian catastrophe

Idlib province is dominated by Al Qaeda-linked militants. It's also home to 3 million civilians, and the United Nations has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border. The United Nations says over half of the civilians in Idlib have been internally displaced following continuing reports of air strikes in the area.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is alarmed by the escalation of fighting and is calling for an immediate halt to hostilities, his spokesman said late Monday.

The spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said earlier that a UN-negotiated six-hour humanitarian pause had enabled safe passage for more than 2,500 people to flee.

Over the past three days, some 39 communities were reportedly been affected by shelling in northern Hama, southern Idlib and western Aleppo governorates, while 47 communities were reportedly hit by air strikes, Dujarric said.

“The UN urges all parties to ensure the protection of civilians, and to allow sustained and unhindered access by all humanitarian parties to provide life-saving assistance to all in need,” the UN spokesman said.

Residents of villages and towns in southern parts of Idlib province have been fleeing with their belongings in trucks, cars and on motorcycles.

The regime's ground offensive resumed last week after the collapse of a ceasefire, in place since the end of August.

Before this latest bout of violence, the UN reported that some 60,000 Idlib residents had already been displaced since the regime's bombing campaign began late last month.

Maaret al Numan

The pro-regime Al Watan newspaper said Syrian regime forces were a few kilometres (miles) away from Maaret al Numan, adding that the town “might surrender to the army without fighting.”

The opposition's Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, said Maaret al Numan and the nearby town of Sarqeb were almost empty after tens of thousands of civilians left to escape heavy aerial and ground bombardment.

“As you can see the destruction is massive. Residents were forced to flee this area,” said a member of the White Helmets in a video as he walked through Maaret al Numan. “They had to choose between death or fleeing to the unknown further north.”

Turkey is a backer of some moderate opposition groups, and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement. The deal was brokered last year along with Russia, one of Assad's main backers.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists in Syria, said regime forces have captured approximately 35 villages and hamlets near Maaret al Numan in the past few days.

Car bomb

Also, Monday, a vehicle rigged with explosives blew up in a market in a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, killing five people and wounding others, regime media and opposition activists said.

Regime news agency SANA said the blast occurred in the village of Suluk near the Turkish border, putting the death toll at five people and reporting that several more were injured.

A similar death toll was also given by the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition and the Observatory, which also said 20 people were wounded.

However, Turkey's National Defence Ministry said on Monday that the YPG/PKK terror group killed at least eight civilians and wounded dozens in a car bomb attack in northern Syria.

Turkish troops and Turkey-backed fighters captured Tal Abyad and Suluk from YPG/PKK terrorists in October. That was during Turkey's intervention of northeastern Syria, in which it pushed back the terrorists from some border areas.

Explosions in north Syria areas controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters killed scores of people in recent weeks.

Turkey blames YPG/PKK terrorists for these attacks.

In its more than 30-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK -- listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the European Union -- has been responsible for the deaths of 40,000 people. The YPG is the PKK’s Syrian offshoot.

Hmeymim Air Base

Separately, Russia's military said insurgents used drones to attack its Hmeymim Air Base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast a day earlier.

The two drones were shot down and caused no damage or injuries, said Maj.-Gen. Yuri Borenkov of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Sides in Syria.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies