Idlib assault puts one million children at risk, warns UNICEF
Some children have been displaced at least seven times already, Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's director of emergency programmes, told Reuters.
"It's more than one million kids... When you hear the kind of military rhetoric about an offensive and all that, I think it's important to remember that it's not just against a group of armed men," Fontaine told Reuters in Geneva.
"It's actually a very large proportion of women and children who have no stake in it, and elderly men and others," he said, after holding talks in Damascus this week with deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad.
Bashar al-Assad is expected to launch a large-scale offensive to retake the northwestern province, the last rebel stronghold in the country.
Almost 3 million people live in the province, half of them arriving from other areas of Syria captured by regime forces which have forced opposition supporters to flee.
The agency has drawn up contingency plans including providing clean water and nutritional supplies to some of the estimated 450,000 to 700,000 people who could flee an attack.
"There's some children who have been displaced seven times already, going from one place to the other," Fontaine added. "It means that their coping mechanisms, their resilience is very drained at the moment so they are particularly vulnerable. That's a major concern obviously."
Idlib province borders Turkey, which fears an offensive may trigger a humanitarian and security catastrophe and a flood of refugees into the country.
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The UN on Tuesday also warned a large-scale Syrian regime attack "has the potential to create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen" in the seven-year civil war
However Fontaine said that if there is an assault, civilians would be expected to flee towards Aleppo or Hama and Homs, rather than to Turkey.
"We are anticipating, there are scenarios of possible displacement of between 450,000 and 700,000 people on the move," Fontaine told Reuters. They include 400,000 possibly in the first week.
"We are not part of a discussion on humanitarian corridors at this stage. But I think what is important for us is that people who want to be able to move can move as long as they want to do it and they do it in safety and security," he added.The Syrian regime is reportedly planning a phased offensive on Idlib, initially targeting the western town of Jisr al-Shughour and the al-Ghab plain, and the towns of al-Latamenah, Khan Sheikhoun and Maarat al-Numan in the south of the territory, a Damascus official said this week.
Rebels have blown up two key bridges in a bid to hamper the assault, an activist group said on Friday.
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