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Situation In Idlib, Syria


Syrian government troops have been bombing the last rebel-held province of Idlib since April. And they're now making deep inroads to retake it. Idlib had been the last refuge of people from other parts of Syria. It's also home to over a million refugees. Airstrikes by Syria and the Russian allies have been exacting a high cost in civilian lives and could trigger yet another wave of refugees if they can find a place to go.

Panos Moumtzis is the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Syria and joins us now. Mr. Moumtzis, thanks so much for being with us.

PANOS MOUMTZIS: Thank you for calling me.

SIMON: What do you hear from people on the ground in and around Idlib?

MOUMTZIS: People on the ground are really panicking. Women, children, families have been, on a daily basis for the last four months, been in an area where there's been bombing, airstrikes, ground offensives that has really made their life impossible. More than 400,000 had to run to safety within the governorate in an area where 3 million people are living. We've had more than a hundred incidents of health clinics, schools, water distribution points, a market that received a direct strike, which was really - has tolled, so far, more than 500 deaths and a total panic where one sees entire villages and towns deserted, people running to safety.

So our biggest concern is really the protection of civilians. The basic rule of war - that residential areas, civilians should be respected and protected - it is violated at this point in the Idlib area. And that's really something that is not acceptable.

SIMON: We should remind people, in fact, a direct intentional attack on civilians is a war crime, isn't it?

MOUMTZIS: It is. If it's proven that it's intentional, it is.

And, of course, we have humanitarian assistance programs on the ground providing lifesaving assistance to the thousands of people who are escaping, going into safety. The worry is, first of all, within Idlib itself, it's a governorate with 3 million people living. This is the area where many people had fled from throughout the country. So there's a displacement that is happening on the doorstep of Turkey with 3 million people inside. And it has, also, all the elements to create further regional destabilization should this escalation continue.

What we are calling for is a cessation of hostilities. There must be a peaceful way forward, a way which - a solution that does not involve residential areas being bombed, a solution that is not military and that - a solution that ensures the protection of the children, the women, the families, the civilians who are living in this area.

SIMON: And there have also been strikes from the rebel side.

MOUMTZIS: There have been strikes on both sides. There have been, also, victims on both sides. There's been civilians that then also have circulated from government areas, which have also been affected. And it's equally unacceptable to civilians on both sides to find themselves the victim of this conflict.

SIMON: I gather the U.N. has tried to protect civilians from attack by sharing information about the whereabouts of schools and hospitals with the government so they will know to steer clear. Has that not been successful?

MOUMTZIS: Well, we have shared the coordinates of health facilities, school facilities and so on for the very purpose to make sure they're protected. Sadly, several of these facilities received a direct hit. Actually, the secretary-general has called for a board of inquiry to investigate into these cases and to find out what had happened.

For us, it's a question of trust, and it's a question of protection when we say - when we give these coordinates, we expect that all parties in the conflict will respect them. And when that doesn't happen, that's really a significant problem for all and, most importantly, for the people who find themselves - that we have had incidents of ambulances receiving direct aid. Hospitals, doctors, nurses would be in the middle of an operational procedure or who had gone to this place for medical treatment and to find themselves being bombed inside the hospital or children in the school. That's something that is really totally unacceptable.

SIMON: Panos Moumtzis is the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

MOUMTZIS: Thank you for calling me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.