Thousands flee villages south of Aleppo as government forces advance

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Thousands of Syrian civilians have fled rebel-held areas near Aleppo in recent days, sleeping in the open as they escape approaching fighting and government shelling, activists and aid organizations said Tuesday.

About 35,000 people have left the Hader and Zerbeh districts south-west of the divided city, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Aid agencies were becoming “more and more concerned for families living outdoors as the weather is getting colder, especially overnight,” Vanessa Huguenin said.

Syrian troops, backed by Russian airstrikes, have gained ground from rebels in the area in recent days.

“People are simply helpless,” a local opposition activist who uses the pseudonym Abu Firas al-Halabi said. “They have nowhere to go. They have been sleeping in the open air and in fields with their children for the past two days.”

Al-Halabi said many of those fleeing the renewed fighting had already been displaced twice before.

“In the past 72 hours, some 70,000 to 100,000 have left their homes in areas on the southern outskirts of Aleppo,” Zaidoun al-Zoabi, who heads a medical aid organization, said from south Aleppo.

“I saw people sitting with children under trees,” said al-Zoabi, chief executive of the Syrian Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations.

The Syrian conflict has driven more than half the country’s pre-war population of 22.4 million people from their homes.

Almost 4.7 million have fled the country, mostly to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while about 7.6 million are internally displaced, according to UN agencies.

Earlier, at least 45 people, including rebel fighters and members of their families, were killed in overnight Russian airstrikes in Syria’s coastal mountains, a group that monitors the Syrian conflict said.

Another 75 people were injured in the raids on the Jabal al-Akrad area near the mountainous front lines between government forces and rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Among those killed was the commander of the 1st Coastal Division, a moderate rebel group that has reportedly received arms from the United States, the observatory said.

The monitoring group said Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed 370 people since they began on September 30. It said that among those killed were 127 civilians, 36 of whom were children.

Syria’s coastal plain and the mountain range just inland from it are a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect and are mostly under government control.

The Jabal al-Akrad area in the north of the mountain range, however, is held by rebels.

The area has seen fierce battles over the past two weeks. It is the furthest point west on a 130-kilometre-long front line across central Syria where government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, are trying to win back territory lost to the opposition, so far with limited results.

Russia has said its intervention is targeting Islamic State and other extremist groups, but more moderate groups backed by the US, Turkey and Gulf states have been hard hit.

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