More than 3,500 Syrians flee to Turkey in four days as pro-Assad forces advance

By Humeyra Pamuk ISTANBUL (Reuters) - More than 3,600 Turkmens and Arabs fleeing advancing pro-government Syrian forces in the north of Latakia province have crossed into Turkey over the past four days, Turkish disaster agency AFAD said on Monday. A Turkmen official said several thousand more migrants were expected as a camp mostly sheltering Turkmens in the Syrian village of Yamadi was being evacuated after the pro-government forces backed by Russian air strikes advanced. "In Syria's Turkmen region, following the intensifying attacks against Turkmen population thousands of families had taken shelter in the Yamadi camp across the Syrian side of the border," AFAD said in a statement. "As the attacks have spilled over to Yamadi camp, the first group of 731 migrants, mostly babies, children, women and the elderly, have entered our country on Jan. 29," it said. About 200 people have been sent to a camp in Guvecci, in southern Turkish province of Hatay, itv added. Rural towns in a province traditionally seen as a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad have been relatively safe until a military offensive over the last two months, including 300 air raids. The was why people from these communities were now being displaced in large numbers, the United Nations said. The Turkmens are ethnic kin of the Turks, and Turkey has been particularly angered by what it says is Russian targeting of them in Syria. At least 12,733 civilians have been displaced in two months of fighting, and more displacement is expected if pro-Assad forces advance towards Kensaba town and along the Turkish border, a U.N. humanitarian report said. In southern Syria, a further 35,715 people have been uprooted by another government offensive to retake the strategic town of Sheikh Maskin, the U.N. said. AFAD said as of Monday afternoon, 3,648 people had already crossed through Pulluyazi, a village near the border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province. The influx has accelerated since Jan. 24, when Rabiya, a rebel-held town in Latakia province, was captured by Syrian pro-government forces. The Syrian government's military campaign came as the U.N. struggled to convene the first peace talks in two years in Geneva, where opposition representatives are seeking a halt to attacks on civilian areas, the release of detainees and a lifting of blockades. Most of Syria's pre-war population have been forced out of their homes by the war, 5 million as refugees and 6.5 million displaced within the country. "On average, since 2011, 50 Syrian families have been displaced every hour of every day," UNHCR said in its latest Syria report. Russian air strikes have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign in support of Assad nearly four months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Saturday. An opposition delegate said bombings had intensified before the peace talks. "There was an attack by Russians over the weekend on the camp," a Turkmen official at Yayladagi said. "Thankfully it did not fall right at the heart of the camp, but still 40 people were wounded," he said. "A lot of towns, villages in the north of Latakia have already been emptied. But there's still another 3,000-4,000 civilians there who haven't left," he said. Turkey has said that Russia's actions in Syria risk exacerbating a refugee crisis soon after it struck a deal with the EU to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. (Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Hugh Lawson)