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story.lead_photo.caption Army artillery, part of a Turkish offensive, arrives Saturday in Idlib province in Syria. More photos at arkansasonline.com/216syria/. (AP)

BEIRUT -- A military offensive on an opposition-controlled region of northwestern Syria has created one of the worst catastrophes for civilians in the country's long-running war, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, many of them sleeping in open fields and under trees in freezing weather.

The military campaign in Idlib province and the nearby Aleppo countryside has also killed hundreds of civilians, and winter has compounded the problem.

The weather has contributed to at least 10 deaths, including four who suffered hypothermia, a family of four that died of suffocation in their tent and two who burned to death when their tent caught fire, according to Mohammed Hallaj, a coordinator for the area's Response Coordination Group.

Nizar Hamadi, 43, lost his brother and three other family members, including a 3-year old. Their family had been displaced multiple times to escape the government offensive, ending up in a settlement made up of tents stitched together with sticks and cloth.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpLzXkVpVA4]

"It was God's destiny that it was really cold. The temperature was no less than -8 or -9 [15 degrees Fahrenheit] and this is rare in Syria," he said, speaking to The Associated Press from the Idlib town of Binnish.

He said his brother, Steif Abdel-Razak Hamadi, had moved north as Binnish also came under attack to set up his family's next shelter in Killi. On Tuesday, he set up a coal heater and by nightfall, as the fire died down, he moved it inside the tent and went to sleep with his family including his wife, two children and his grandchild.

"For the whole night, the heater was sucking out all the oxygen in the tent," Hamadi said.

When the son sleeping in another tent woke up and went to their tent, he found them all dead.

The government's Russian-backed assault on Idlib, the Syrian opposition's last stronghold, has uprooted more than 830,000 people since Dec. 1, most of them fleeing toward safer areas near the border with Turkey, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday. At least 143,000 people have been displaced in the past three days.

"Humanitarian needs are increasing exponentially," Dujarric said. "The ongoing emergency compounds the already dire humanitarian situation for people in the northwest, who have been made vulnerable by years of crisis, violence, economic downturn and, of course, multiple displacements," Dujarric said.

About half the territory's population had already been displaced from other parts of Syria, so formal camps are full.

Gallery: Idlib province, Syria

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"It's cold, it's snowing and our life is terrible, we can't take this cold and neither can the kids," said a woman, who identified herself by her nickname Um Muhammad, who recently fled and was staying at a tent camp near the Turkish border.

"This life, what can I say? We are broken now. I am an old woman with kids, no one is taking care of us," she said, her face wrapped up in a big black scarf against the cold.

The fighting has killed 1,700 people since last April, and the latest military campaign is disrupting aid operations, according to the United Nations. As of Tuesday, at least 72 health facilities have suspended services due to insecurity or mass displacement, it says.

The U.N. Security Council held a closed meeting Friday on the escalating violence in Idlib at the request of its European Union members -- France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia along with former member Poland.

Afterward, the five EU nations issued a statement expressing alarm at the military escalation and demanding an immediate end to the attacks.

"This is one of the worst man-made displacements that we have seen anywhere in the world in years. And it has been and continues to be entirely avoidable," the five EU nations said in the statement.

The United Nations World Food Program said it was forced to temporarily stop food distributions because the recent upsurge in hostilities disrupted the movement of trucks carrying supplies into the region from Turkey.

Information for this article was contributed by Suzan Fraser of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/16/2020

Print Headline: Cold adds to distress in war-torn Syria's northwest

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