BEIRUT: A battle between Syrian regime forces and opposition fighters for the northwestern Idlib province could affect the lives of more than 1 million children, many of whom live in refugee camps, the UN’s children’s agency warned on Friday.
Food, water, and medicine are already in short supply in the largely rural province, which is now home to over 1 million Syrians displaced from their homes by regime offensives in other parts of the country, said UNICEF.
The agency said a battle for Idlib, the last major bastion for Syria’s political and military opposition, would exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation there and potentially displace 350,000 children.
The regime forces dropped leaflets across the province on Thursday, urging residents to reconcile with its rule. Officials have warned that the regime will take back the province by force if necessary.
There are 2.9 million people living in Idlib and surrounding opposition-held areas, according to UN estimates.
“War cannot be allowed to go to Idlib,” said Jan Egeland, a top UN humanitarian adviser on Syria.
The UN has appealed on Turkey to open its border to refugees, should the regime decides to attack the province, Egeland said.
Separately, a pro-regime daily Al-Watan said Thursday that Syria’s civil registries recorded 68,000 deaths in the war-torn country in 2017.
“Last year, we confirmed 68,000 without specifying the nature of their death and 32,000 this year,” civil registries chief Ahmad Rahal said.
He did not provide any additional details about those who had died, including in what part of Syria they had lost their lives or whether they had been victims of the ongoing conflict.
Thursday’s news come after activists accused authorities of quietly updating civil records to mark detainees in regime jails as “deceased” — some backdated by several years.
Human rights activists say tens of thousands of Syrians are held in regime jails across the country.
Relatives and advocates say they are often tortured, denied a fair trial, and deprived of contact with their families.
But Rahal said employees at the civil record did not have a “missing” box to tick.
“If a document comes through from any government body — whether a hospital or another — to confirm a death, it is confirmed without specifying if they were missing or not.”
The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented around 400 cases in recent months where civil registry employees have told family members that their detained relative has died.
There could be further such instances which are yet to be documented.
Around 80,000 remain forcibly disappeared by the regime, the rights group says.
More than 350,000 people have been killed since Syria’s civil war started in 2011, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor says.
More than 33,000 were killed last year alone, including more than 10,000 civilians and 7,000 pro-regime fighters, it says.
During the first seven months of this year, at least 14,000 people lost their lives among them more than 5,000 civilians and 7,000 soldiers and loyalists.