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Civilian Casualties And Refugee Crisis Intensify As Syrian Army Moves In On Idlib

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Syria, a government offensive has escalated in recent days, killing civilians in Idlib province. It's being called the worst crisis of the nine-year war. Perhaps a million people are huddled in camps near the border with Turkey. They are fleeing government troops and Russian airstrikes. Key rebel towns are being recaptured. There is little relief in sight. NPR's Deborah Amos is tracking this from Beirut.

Hi there, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So the situation sounds just horrific, even, as we said, by the standards of the ongoing war in Syria. What is the latest you're hearing?

AMOS: It is horrific. The Syrian offensive has been particularly violent the past two days around Idlib city, the besieged capital, and the surrounding villages. On Tuesday, 22 civilians died, including nine children. At least six schools and a nursery were targeted, according to the White Helmets. That's a rescue group. One strike came at 8 a.m., just as the kids were coming to school. The teachers decided to send them home when a cluster bomb hit the schoolyard. And the shelling continued today.

KELLY: I'm told you managed to speak to one mother there. Who is she? How is she handling this?

AMOS: So let me start by saying she doesn't want her name broadcast because she fears for her parents, who still live in regime-controlled areas. She has two children - a 9-year-old girl, a 4-year-old boy. The family has moved house 10 times during this war. She's now living in a town close to the Turkish border, Sarmada. And it's been repeatedly shelled.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: During this war, we've experienced almost everything, but the most painful thing is to have kids. The more they grow up, the more fears expand. They have forced to experience the horrible explosions many time. I hug them and making them watching some cartoons on my mobile phone to make them be calm during the air raids.

AMOS: You know, it's so hard for parents who know they cannot keep their kids safe. Many have heard about the Syrian father, the one who taught his daughter to laugh during the airstrikes. That video went viral recently.

KELLY: Yeah.

AMOS: The little girl's name is Salwa, and she and her father were allowed to cross the border into Turkey yesterday. Now her father can find other things to make her laugh.

KELLY: Deb, want to ask you - because I know there's one particular town that you have been tracking; a town that, for a long time, has been a symbol of resistance against the regime. Remind us where that is and how it's caught up here.

AMOS: So Kafranbel is in Idlib province. The Syrian military recaptured the town on Tuesday. It's a symbolic place. It was one of the first to revolt against Damascus. And it was widely known because every week in the early years of the conflict, these anti-government protesters would include these humorous banners in English. Back then, the regime was more concerned with the uprisings in the urban centers, so Kafranbel was left alone. And it elected a local government. It opened a radio station, and the town leaders there resisted a takeover by Islamist militants longer than most places. Today those pictures that are posted online show a ghost town. There is nothing left. The buildings were all leveled by airstrikes and shelling.

KELLY: Where does this go? I gather there are talks next week. Is that in the hopes of putting some kind of cease-fire in place?

AMOS: Well, Turkey has the most at stake in those talks, with nearly 4 million Syrian refugees and another million pressed against its border. Today the Turkish president delivered this belligerent threat for a full-scale military operation to take all these towns back. It may be posturing ahead of this proposed four-way summit - Germany, France, Russia and Turkey. So far, Moscow hasn't confirmed. They continue to back the assault. The Syrian army has retaken 120 villages in Idlib. Maybe all sides are posturing, trying to take back territory. That seems to be the strongest hand.

KELLY: NPR's Deborah Amos reporting from Beirut.

Thank you.

AMOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERBALL'S "THE MOON, THE SKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.