BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian opposition leader called Friday on the international community to help millions of civilians in the country's last rebel-held stronghold amid a crushing government offensive, calling it a "disaster area."
After weeks of intense bombardment, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive on the southern and eastern parts of Idlib province in the northwest last week. It has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants, is also home to 3 million civilians. The United Nations has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.
Opposition leader Nasr Hariri told reporters in Istanbul that the international community "should turn on the red lights because there is a humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria." He added that large numbers of people are fleeing toward the Turkish border in what could trigger a new refugee crisis.
"We declare this area a disaster area and it should be dealt with accordingly," said Hariri, who heads the High Negotiations Committee. He said work should be done to reach a permanent cease-fire in Idlib, not a truce that would crumble later.
Hariri said if the international community cannot protect those civilians, they should send them humanitarian assistance "so that they will be able to survive in this cold weather and difficult circumstances."
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that as a result of hostilities more than 235,000 people have been displaced between Dec. 12 and Dec. 25. It said many of those who fled moved out of the town of Maaret al-Numan, toward which Syrian troops have been advancing since Thursday.
Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian aid group, said aid workers were rapidly scaling up operations to respond to the massive influx of newly displaced people. In just the past three days, Mercy Corps has handed out new arrival kits containing essentials for cooking and hygiene to more than 3,000 people and reached an additional 2,500 with fresh water, it said.
"Thunderous bombs and shelling keep getting closer to major civilian areas,” said Wolfgang Gressmann, Syria country director for the organization. “For thousands of innocent civilians the only choice is to flee, and now even their escape is a violent and frightening affair.”
The town sits on a key highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.
The immediate goal of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces appeared to be reopening the strategic highway, which has been closed by the rebels since 2012.