Nearly 40,000 people, mostly women and children, have been displaced over the past week by fighting northwest of Syria’s Hama city between the regime and the revolutionaries, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Alliance of revolutionaries and militants launched a new offensive in Hama countryside on March 21 with the aim of retaking areas captured by government forces in 2016 and pushed into Hama city.
At least 10 rebel groups battling as part of the Free Syrian Army are also engaged in heavy fighting in northern Hama.
The Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, once the strongest in Syria’s north, announced on Tuesday that it too had begun an offensive in Hama.
Ahrar al-Sham military spokesman Omar Khattab announced in a video posted to YouTube the beginning of a new stage of fighting “against this criminal regime and against its sectarian militias”.
Ahrar al-Sham appears to have entered the fight in Hama as part of a separate operation because of recent clashes between it and Tahrir al-Sham in Syria’s north.
Since the offensive started, the revolutionaries made advancement in more than 12 villages and moved closer to Hama city. The revolutionaries also managed to cut off the supply route of regime forces from Hama to al-Ghab Plain in its northern countryside by controlling important fronts in the vicinity.
40.000 civilians displaced
Since the rebel offensive began in the area a week ago, people have fled south and west to Hama city and neighboring districts in Homs, Latakia, and Tartous, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement.
“Some internally displaced people are at risk of further displacement as the front lines continue to shift,” it said.
“Of the total [number of] newly displaced people, an estimated 30,000 people moved to Hama city and Masyaf in Hama and Wadi al-Nasara in Homs. An estimated 9,000 people moved to Mashta Elhilu, rural areas of Banyas, and Tartous city in Tartous province,” the statement added.
Another 425 people from 85 families have been displaced to Latakia, reports said.
The statement added that increased clashes between the opposition and the Syrian army in northern and western Hama have put civilians at risk of injury, death, and displacement.
Meanwhile, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura called for assistance from Russia, Iran, and Turkey to reach a ceasefire agreement in Syria on Saturday, indicating that the increasing violence in Syria threatens the Geneva peace talks, and urged the three countries to assist in providing the truce.
De Mistura also asked for support of the opposition by sending letters to Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara, while indicating the concerns result from the increasing violence in Damascus and Hama regions. He also demanded that these states take immediate measures to establish a cease-fire. Another 425 people from 85 families have been displaced to Latakia.
Suspected gas attacks
Warplanes pounded rebel-held areas north of the Syrian city of Hama on Thursday in an escalation of airstrikes aiming at reversing the revolutionaries’ advancement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a doctor said air strikes near the town of Latamneh, northwest of Hama, had led several people to choke, saying it was a sign of a gas attack. A source close to regime’s military denied the army had used any such weapons, branding the reports as rebel propaganda.
Regime helicopters targeted the town of Al-Latamna and the village of Zawr with barrel bombs containing chlorine gas, Mohamed Elwan, a Hama-based doctor, told Anadolu Agency.
The gas, he said, had adversely affected roughly 100 residents of the opposition-held town and village, some of whom, he asserted, were in critical condition.
“Local residents are showing symptoms of chlorine gas exposure, including vomiting, dizziness, blurred vision and shortness of breath,” Elwan said.
Speaking to Reuters from Turkey, Abdallah Darwish, head of the health authority for rebel-held parts of Hama province, said air strikes in the south of Latamneh on Thursday morning had injured many people.
“The bombardment had a substance that caused intense irritation, heavy foaming from the mouth, and constricting pupils,” said Darwish, citing his medical staff on the ground.
A chemical attack hit the same area on Saturday, killing an orthopedic doctor, Darwish added.
On Wednesday, Syrian regime forces carried out a similar chlorine gas attack on the Al-Qaboun district northeast of capital Damascus that reportedly affected 35 civilian residents.
The regime source said the allegations that government forces were using chemical weapons were “devoid of truth”.
“The army has not, will not, and does not need to use these weapons,” the source said.
— Zaher Sahloul (@sahloul) March 30, 2017
Political opposition denounces
The National Coalition of opposition forces denounces the chemical attacks in a statement, calling for bringing Assad regime figures to the International Criminal Court.
“The Assad regime’s air force bombed the town of Latamina and the Zwar area in northern rural of Hama with missiles loaded with toxic substances on Thursday. A similar attack targeted the district of Qaboun in eastern Damascus on Wednesday. The attacks caused dozens of cases of asphyxiation among civilians, with victims showing symptoms that included frothing at the mouth, pinpoint pupils, shortness of breath, burning eyes, and general weakness. According to a doctor who treated some of the victims, the symptoms were most likely due to the use of organic phosphorus,” the statement said.
“The Assad regime once again uses toxic gas in the bombardment of civilian areas in a blatant violation of the Geneva Protocol and UN Security Council resolutions 2118, 2209, 2235, and 2254.”
“The recurrence of these crimes and violations as well as the lack of appropriate response make key parties in the UN Security Council and the international community partners in these crimes and violations.”
“The Coalition renews calls to refer the crimes of the Assad regime and its allies to the International Criminal Court to ensure that those responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes are held accountable. Judicial proceedings should be instituted based on the mechanism adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 21, 2016, calling for prosecuting the most serious crimes committed in Syria since March 2011,” the statement finalized.
— Syrian Coalition (@SyrCoalition) March 30, 2017
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.