UN says more displaced likely if Syria violence mounts

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BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N. food agency warned Friday of a worsening humanitarian situation in Syria's last rebel stronghold in the country's northwest as rebel groups battled government forces to regain territory they lost earlier this week.

The latest wave of fighting, which began 10 days ago, is the most serious challenge to a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey last September. Already, some 150,000 people have been displaced inside the enclave, which is home to 3 million people and spans most of Idlib province and part of Hama in the country's northwest corner.

The U.N. Security Council was to meet later Friday to discuss the violence.

"The situation inside Idlib and northwest Syria is dire and should escalation in violence continue, more desperate families will be displaced," said Marwa Awad, spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Syria.

The agency was already forced to suspend aid delivery in the last few days to about 47,000 people of a total of 580,000 it had been reaching before the violence. Dozens of the newly displaced, many uprooted by violence several times before, are living out in the open in olive groves, unable to afford transportation to camps further north, Awad said.

The violence escalated in the last few days as government forces advanced on the southern edge of the rebel stronghold — gaining control since Wednesday of a couple of villages and towns there.

On Friday, rebel groups launched a counteroffensive to reclaim Kfar Nabudah, a village some described as the first line of defense for Idlib, which was captured by the government Wednesday. Its capture enabled government troops to advance to the east, regaining control of the town Qalaat Madiq.

Syria state al-Ikhbariya TV claimed troops repelled the insurgent attacks against Kfar Nabudah village.

But the Britain-based war monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the insurgents, led by al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, advanced into the village, sparking intense clashes and government airstrikes.

A spokesman for the rebel umbrella group National Front for Liberation, Naji al-Mustafa, said clashes are ongoing and the government has suffered losses.

The rebel stronghold is the last pocket of anti-government opposition in the eight-year civil war. Multiple foreign powers have intervened in the conflict, with Russia and Iran backing the government and Turkey supporting rebel factions. The U.S. backs Kurdish-led fighters in the east.

Late on Thursday, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and requested that the attacks on Idlib stop. According to Anadolu, Lavrov told Cavusoglu that the government's attacks on Idlib had been halted.

A readout of the call posted on Russia's Foreign Ministry website, however, did not mention a Russian pledge to stop the attacks. It only said that the two ministers discussed Idlib and the importance of "fighting against the terrorist threat on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria."

On Friday, Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar accused the Syrian government of trying to expand its field of control in Idlib in violation of the cease-fire.

Akar called for the government attacks to be halted. He made the comments during a visit to Turkey's border with Syria where he inspected troops, together with the country's top military commanders.

Speaking to the Saudi-owned Asharq Al Awsat daily, U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffery said Washington was against the ongoing escalation in Idlib because it would lead to a flow of refugees and displaced persons as well as a possible use of chemical weapons.

The U.S. had previously retaliated with military action against Syrian government targets, after Damascus was blamed for chemical weapons attacks on civilians during previous military offensives.

Russia and Damascus accuse the insurgents of staging chemical attacks.

Jeffrey told the paper that Moscow has informed Washington that the current attack was "limited" to stop attacks by militants linked to HTS on the Russian military base in Syria's coastal province adjacent to Idlib. However, he said, it is not clear what Moscow and Damascus want, adding that Russia appears more involved in the current offensive.

Russian airstrikes have been reported during the ongoing offensive. Moscow had said it has foiled several attacks by rebel groups on its military base.

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