* Idlib has 2.9mn civilians, including 1mn children * Some 450-700,000 could flee a military assault on rebel enclave
Last updated: September 01 2018 12:26 AM
More than a million Syrian children are at risk in the event of a government military assault on the rebel-held province of Idlib, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) said yesterday.
Manuel Fontaine, Unicef director of emergency programmes, said that 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.
An estimated 2.9mn people live in the northern region of Idlib, half of them already displaced from other areas in Syria as opposition supporters fled there from other areas captured by government forces.
"It's more than 1mn 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 said 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, speaking after holding talks in Damascus this week with deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad.
The UN urged Syria not to "revictimise" the children of fighters in Idlib, insisting they were not responsible for their parents' actions.
Fontaine voiced particular concern for the children of rebel fighters in that province, worrying that they might suffer the consequences of their parents' choices.
"I think there is a real risk to revictimise these children and again associate them to what their fathers might have done," said Fontaine.
"It is extremely important that common sense prevails and that frankly, when you are a four-year-old, a five-year-old, a 10-year-old or 11-year-old, and your parents have made a particular decision, that is not your responsibility," he said.
"The protection of these children is extremely important to us, and we will certainly be watching over that very carefully."
Idlib and surrounding areas are the last major enclave held by rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A source has said that Assad is preparing a phased offensive to regain the province.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday the Syrian government had every right to chase "terrorists" out of Idlib and that talks on establishing humanitarian corridors there were ongoing.
UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to try to delay the battle and called for humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians.
Many families in Idlib have been uprooted multiple times, evacuated as front lines shift, Fontaine said.
"There's some children who have been displaced seven times already, going from one place to the other. 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."
If there is an assault, civilians would be expected to flee towards Aleppo or Hama and Homs, rather than to Turkey, he said.
"We are anticipating, there are scenarios of possible displacement of between 450,000 and 700,000 people on the move," Fontaine said.
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," Fontaine said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday accused his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov of "defending the assault" by Syrian government forces on Idlib.
"Sergey Lavrov is defending Syrian and Russian assault on #Idlib," Pompeo tweeted."The Russians and Assad agreed not to permit this. The US sees this as an escalation of an already dangerous conflict."
Rebels from Idlib have blown up two key bridges in a bid to hamper an expected government assault on the province, a monitor said yesterday.
The bridges over the Orontes River linked areas of neighbouring Hama province, under government control, to rebel-held territory in Idlib, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They were blown up by Islamist factions from the National Liberation Front (NLF), the main non-jihadist alliance in Idlib, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.