Fighting in Syria’s Hama Province Displaces 100,000- U.N.

syriaFighting in Syria’s western Hama province displaced an estimated 100,000 people between Aug. 28 and Sept. 5, the United Nations said on Wednesday, citing the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the governor of the province.

Syrian rebels launched an offensive last week in northern Hama, an area of strategic importance to President Bashar al-Assad that is home to loyalist towns populated by minority Christians and Alawites. Rebels rapidly captured the town of Halfaya. Pro-Assad forces have hit back with heavy air strikes.

Many people had fled from the fighting towards Hama city and neighbouring villages, as well as north into Idlib province, the U.N. said.

There were originally about 4,500 families in the town of Halfaya, of which 2,800 remain trapped by the fighting while the rest managed to flee, the U.N. report said.

Another 4,500 families were displaced from Taybat al Imam, out of 9,500 in that town, and 5,000 families were uprooted from the army stronghold of Soran, about half the population there.

Many of the displaced people were sleeping outdoors, but four mosques in Hama city and 12 schools in rural areas were temporarily housing people, the U.N. said.

The Red Crescent had provided aid to about 7,000 families in Hama, roughly 35,000 people, and the United Nations sent a convoy of 12 trucks to Hama on Sept. 4 with aid for another 15,000 people. Another 6,500 families still urgently need food and other aid, the U.N. said.

Russia Says U.S. Planes Bombed Syria’s Aleppo On Wednesday

aleppoRussia’s Defence Ministry said on Thursday that two U.S. aircraft had bombed the Syrian city of Aleppo on Feb. 10, and that Russian planes had not been operating in the area.

A Pentagon spokesman had accused Russian and Syria government forces on Wednesday of destroying Aleppo’s two main hospitals with air strikes, though he did not specify when the strikes were alleged to have taken place.

The Syrian army has made rapid advances near Aleppo in recent weeks with the help of Russian air strikes.

But Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement that “only aviation of the anti-ISIS coalition flew over the city yesterday”, referring to the U.S.-led alliance of countries fighting the Islamic State militant group.

“At 1355 Moscow time, two U.S. Air Force A-10 attack aircraft entered Syrian airspace from Turkish territory. Reaching Aleppo by the most direct path, they made strikes against objects in the city.”

He said the Russian targets on that day had been at least 20 km (12 miles) from the city.

When asked on Wednesday whether the U.S.-led coalition could do more to help rebels in Aleppo or improve access for humanitarian aid to the city, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said that the coalition’s focus remained on fighting Islamic State, which was “virtually non-existent in that part of Syria”.

Capturing Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war but now divided between rebel- and government-held sectors, would represent a major military victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a symbolic prize for his ally, Russia, to help justify its bombing campaign in Syria.

Members of the United Nations Security Council pressed Russia on Wednesday to stop bombing Aleppo in support of the Syrian military offensive and allow humanitarian access ahead of a meeting of major powers in Germany on the conflict.

Syrian Army Sees Aleppo Encircled Soon, Rebels Hope For More Weapons

syrianA Syrian Army source said the city of Aleppo would soon be encircled by government forces as rebels pounded by Russian air strikes expressed hope that the failure of Geneva peace talks would encourage their foreign backers to send better weapons.

Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, said there was no point to peace talks while Russia carried out attacks in Syria. Moscow confirmed a Russian military trainer was killed in Syria this week, but denied that Russian servicemen were fighting on the ground.

The United Nations on Wednesday suspended the first peace talks in two years, halting an effort that seemed doomed from the start as the war raged unabated on the ground and government forces severed a major rebel supply route into strategically-important Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war began.

Turkey said on Thursday that tens of thousands of refugees from Aleppo were moving towards the border due to air strikes.

Four months of Russian air strikes have tipped the momentum Assad’s way after rebel advances earlier in 2015 that posed a growing threat to his control of crucial areas of western Syria.

With the help of Russian air power and allies including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian fighters on the ground, the overstretched Syrian army is regaining ground on key fronts in the west, where Syria’s most important cities are located.

But vast swathes of the country are in the hands of armed rebels, including a mosaic of groups in the west, Islamic State in the east, and Kurdish militia in the north.

The refugee crisis created by the five-year-long war moved back into focus as donors convened in London on Thursday, with U.N. agencies seeking billions in aid to help the victims of a conflict that has forced millions from their homes.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the first steps in peace talks were undermined by increased aerial bombing. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura announced a three-week pause.

“I think the special envoy decided to suspend the talks because the organisation did not want to be associated with the Russian escalation in Syria, which risks undermining the talks completely,” a U.N. official told Reuters.

Washington and Moscow’s support for opposite sides in the five-year-old war, which has drawn in regional states, created millions of refugees and enabled the rise of Islamic State, means a local conflict has become a fraught global stand-off.

Moscow accuses Washington, which is backing opponents of Assad, of supporting terrorists, while the U.S. State Department said the air strikes around Aleppo focused mainly on Assad’s foes rather than the Islamic State militants Russia says it is trying to defeat.