"We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it's not easy. It's difficult, they are humans too," Turkey's President Erdogan says, as crisis worsens in Syria's flashpoint Idlib province.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 refugees were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria's northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian regime forces.
"Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 refugees are moving towards our borders," Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. "We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it's not easy. It's difficult, they are humans too."
The president questioned the humanitarian sensitivities of those who oppose foreigners in their cities, at a time when Turkey is hosting some five million refugees, including some four million Syrians — the largest refugee population anywhere the world.
Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.
Ankara has so far spent $40 billion on the refugees, according to official figures.
With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday.
Up to three million people live in Idlib, the last opposition-held swathe of territory after Syria's nearly nine-year civil war.
'Almost empty' towns
Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian regime artillery since a renewed regime assault last month, despite a deal agreed on last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia, and Iran to ease tensions.
At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in the town of Idlib when the Syrian regime launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.
In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al Numan and the surrounding countryside "are reportedly almost empty."
"Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterisation assistance," the OCHA said.
It said those displaced in December were fleeing towards Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or toward other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and Al Bab liberated by Turkey and its allies from terrorists in previous cross-border campaigns.
Europe to feel refugee heat
Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian opposition.
Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of refugees from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.
Turkey has 12 military posts in the area and on Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.
Meanwhile, Turkey's Vice President Fuat Oktay said on Thursday Ankara will build a model area inside the safe zone in northern Syria.
"We are working on an area where the Syrians can live and the Syrians in Turkey can return voluntarily," Oktay told Anadolu Agency.
"We are thinking of building an area in 2020 that can serve as a model, at least physically," he said, stressing this requires international financial support.
"We have to create a solution within Syria. We cannot face the problems caused by the world on our own," Oktay added.