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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria warned Thursday that an all-out conflict in the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib province would very likely increase human rights violations and generate a humanitarian catastrophe.
Paulo Pinheiro told a news conference that the current aerial and ground offensive by the Syrian government and its allies is "a serious escalation" resulting in scores of civilian casualties and the displacement of over 150,000 people in just one week.
The commission, established by the U.N. Human Rights Council, has been gathering evidence of alleged crimes against civilians during the nine-year civil war.
Since the beginning of the year, Pinheiro said, the commission has been investigating deadly attacks against civilians by the Syrian government and its allies in Idlib and northern Hama, including on medical facilities, markets, schools and other civilian infrastructure.
It has also investigated shelling by armed groups, including al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, that has resulted "in scores of deaths and injuries," he said.
Pinheiro also expressed concern about tens of thousands of civilians displaced during the final campaign to rout Islamic State extremists from territory it held in northern Syria.
Many are "being held in limbo under dire humanitarian conditions" with only marginal access to food and medical care and are "being treated as security threats," he said.
The commission said in a statement that "inevitably this has led to preventable deaths," noting that "up to 240 children have reportedly already perished due to malnutrition or untreated infected wounds."
At Al-Hol camp in Hasahah, which was initially built to house up to 10,000 displaced people, there are now over 73,000. Ninety-two percent of them are women and children and 15 percent, or at least 11,000, are foreign nationals, the commission said.
"Assistance provided thus far ... has been wholly insufficient," it said.
The commission said many countries are refusing to repatriate their nationals, "solely because they assume they are families" of IS fighters. And some countries have taken further steps of stripping them of citizenship to prevent their return, "or approving their transfer to countries where they may be subject to torture, ill-treatment, or the death penalty," it said.
Pinheiro said governments contemplating "such drastic action ... should, at a minimum, respect basic principles of due process including the right to a hearing and to appeal" losing citizenship.
He said the commission "is particularly alarmed by the situation of children who are vulnerable to being left without a nationality."
Some countries have offered to repatriate children without their mothers, which may run counter to the principle of "the best interests of the child," Pinheiro said, and some countries will only take back children under age 10 because they consider any child older than that a potential fighter.
Pinheiro said several thousand suspected IS fighters — mainly men and boys of fighting age — including hundreds of foreign fighters from nearly 50 countries, are being "held incommunicado" by the Syrian military.
Pinheiro warned that "incommunicado detention risks creating an environment where torture and ill-treatment can be perpetrated with impunity."
The commission urges the Syrian military "to allow all detainees to be visited by an independent international humanitarian organization and human rights monitors," he said.
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