700,000 Syrians flee intensifying bombing, U.S. envoy warns

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By Associated Press and Reuters  with NBC News World News
Image: A member of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmet
Volunteers battle flames after a reported airstrike in the town of Ariha in Idlib province on Thursday.   -   Copyright  Abdulaziz Ketaz

Some 700,000 Syrians were fleeing toward the border with Turkey on Thursday after an intensification of deadly airstrikes, widely believed to have been carried out by Russian warplanes backing a Syrian government offensive, in rebel-held Idlib province.

U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey told a news briefing that Syrian government and Russian warplanes had hit Idlib with 200 strikes "mainly against civilians" in the past three days.

He warned that the situation could "create an international crisis," the according to Reuters.

The recent attacks in Idlib have killed at least 10 people, including some who were fleeing the attack as well as opposition activists, a rescue service said.

A late Wednesday night assault on Ariha, a town in Idlib province, has been controlled by the Syrian opposition for nearly eight years.

The Idlib province is home to 3 million civilians, and the U.N. has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.

The rescue Syrian Civil Defense — known as the White Helmets — believe 11 people, including a child, were killed when the Russian warplanes hit a road used by displaced people trying to leave Ariha.

At least 24 people were wounded, including a doctor, a White Helmet volunteer, three women and two children, the rescuers said.

An Associated Press video shows the damaged hospital in a residential area, with medical equipment broken, supplies strewn over the floor and windows and doors dislodged from their frames.

At least six people — relatives of patients — were killed as they waited outside the hospital, Zuheir Qarat, a surgeon at the Ariha hospital told the AP. Hospital generators and one hospital car were burned, he added. No patients were hurt.

The Ariha hospital is the only medical facility in the area with surgical facilities. There are no government-run hospitals in opposition-held areas, where health and education services are based on donations and international aid.

"It destroyed the hospital and put it out of service," Qarat told the AP in a voice message from Ariha, describing the three raids that were within minutes of each other. "There were also people injured from neighboring buildings."

White Helmets volunteers carry the body of a woman recovered from the rubble after an airstrike in the town of Ariha in Idlib Thursday.
White Helmets volunteers carry the body of a woman recovered from the rubble after an airstrike in the town of Ariha in Idlib Thursday.AAREF WATAD

The U.N. Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock described to the Security Council on Wednesday the dire conditions in the rebel-held areas.

"Many families are moving multiple times. They arrive in a place thought to be safe, only for the bombs to follow, so they are forced to move again," he said. "This cycle is all too familiar in northwest Syria."

Syria's nearly nine-year conflict has killed close to half a million people and displaced half of the population, including more than 5 million who are now refugees, mostly in neighboring countries.