Idlib offensive could 'spark 21st century's worst humanitarian catastrophe'
A leading UN official warned on Monday that a Syrian regime offensive on an opposition province could spark the "worst humanitarian crisis" of the 21st century.
Humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said the regime's planned assault on Idlib would likely lead to huge numbers of civilian deaths, and perhaps the biggest loss of life this century.
"There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don't turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life in the 21st century," Lowcock told reporters.
"We are extremely alarmed at the situation, because of the number of people and the vulnerability of the people... civilians are severely at risk."
Syria's regime and Iran have been building up their forces around Idlib province, the last stronghold of the rebels with fears an assault on the region is imminent.
Idlib is home to around 3 million people, around half refugees who fled other parts of Syria following previous regime assaults.
A new offensive on Idlib would likely uproot 800,000 people, the UN warned, causing major problems for relief agencies.
"We very actively preparing for the possibility that civilians move in huge numbers in multiple directions," Lowcock said.
Turkey has continued to provide humanitarian relief to opposition areas in Idlib and Latakia - situated in Syria's north - and operates a number of military observation posts in the province.
Idlib residents hope Turkey's presence in the province might prevent a major assault by regime forces and Ankara's relationship with Iran and Russia could lead to a new ceasefire.
But Russian and Syrian regime air raids on Idlib have intensified in recent days, with a hospital among the targets.
Such tactics have preceded previous regime offensives.
Agencies contributed to this story.