UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of a U.N. investigative panel on Syria warned Friday that thousands of evacuees sent to rebel-held Idlib and government-controlled western Aleppo province are likely to be caught in escalating fighting from increasingly radicalized extremist groups.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro told reporters after meeting with the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors that the panel is especially concerned that “a disaster” will happen in Idlib.
Syrians now concentrated there “are under serious risk about their lives,” he said.
Pinheiro, chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, painted a grim picture of the plight of civilians caught in the conflict, now in its sixth year with more than 400,000 people killed.
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“Parties to the Syrian war continue to put their interests ahead of those of the Syrian population,” he said. “In fact, more often than not, they use military tactics that directly target civilians as a way to gain military advantage.”
Pinheiro said the commission found that all warring parties committed human rights violations during the siege and fall of Aleppo.
The siege ended in December when the rebels effectively surrendered the city to the government and evacuated their stronghold in the east, mainly to Idlib.
“Several other evacuation agreements have taken place after Aleppo resulting in tens of thousands of civilians moving to Idlib and western Aleppo province where they live in dire conditions,” he said.
Under a recent deal reached by the Syrian government and rebels, up to 30,000 people are being allowed to leave four besieged areas over the coming two months, a population transfer that critics say is redrawing Syria’s map along sectarian and political lines. On Friday, the first phase of the transfer ended.
Pinheiro said that “Aleppo has also resulted in further radicalization of some armed groups.”
He singled out the militant group Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, known as HTS. According to reports, it formed in late January by uniting the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, the Fatah al-Sham Front, formerly known as the Nusra Front, with four other groups.
Pinheiro said the extremists’ presence in Idlib and western Aleppo “raise serious concerns for escalation of hostilities in those areas which puts at risk the evacuees now living there.”
In northern Syria, he said, the fight against the Islamic State extremist group has resulted in that group’s loss of significant swaths of territory. But even as it loses ground, “let’s not forget that there are multiple parties contesting the same territory which further puts civilians at risk,” he said.
Pinheiro said the committee has documented the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon and is now investigating the reported use of sarin or a sarin-like substance to kill nearly 100 people in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.