Fighters have set fire to thousands of acres of wheat and other crops in northwest Syria in a campaign that has turned food supplies in a "weapon of war" and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Satellite images released by campaigners last week showed fields, orchards and olive groves burning in the region where Syria's Russia-backed army has been assaulting rebels in their last major stronghold.
Both sides in the fight had blamed each other for the destruction, the UN's World Food Programme said.
"The latest outbreak in violence in Idlib and north Hama has left dozens of casualties, burned several thousand acres of vital crops and farmland and forced at least 300,000 people to flee their homes," WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said
"Crops such as barley, wheat and vegetables have been destroyed. Destruction to farmland and the agricultural sector is unacceptable," he told a news briefing in Geneva.
Farmers had not been able to get to their fields or tend to their remaining crops during the harvest season, as the warring sides vied for control and terrotity, Verhoosel said.
Russia blocked the UN Security Council on Monday from issuing a statement sounding alarm about the increasing fighting in and around Syria's Idlib province and the possibility of a humanitarian disaster, a council diplomat said.
The thwarted statement marked the latest in a series of logjams over Syria in the UN's most influential body.
After multiple briefings last week on Idlib, Belgium, Kuwait and Germany proposed that the council express concern about attacks on civilians and assaults by extremist groups as well as a the potential for humanitarian catastrophe if a full-scale military operation unfolds, according to a draft seen by The Associated Press. It called for humanitarian access, safe return for refugees and for following international humanitarian law on protecting civilians.
"It was really simple," Kuwaiti Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi said when asked about the proposal at an unrelated news conference.
But key Syrian ally Russia objected Monday to the proposed statement, said a diplomat, who agreed to tell about the private discussions only if not quoted by name.
Scores of women and children related to fighters of the Islamic State group carried their belongings and boarded buses and trucks Monday, leaving an overcrowded camp in the country's northeast to return to their homes.
A total of 800 Syrian women and children left al-Hol camp in Hasakeh province Monday afternoon, according to Syrian Kurdish official Badran Ciya Kurd and witnesses. The departure is the largest since the IS group's territorial defeat in Syria in March, when the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces captured Baghouz, the last village controlled by the militants near the Iraqi border.
The SDF-controlled al-Hol camp in Hasakeh, which was initially built to house up to 10,000 displaced people, is now home to over 73,000. Ninety-two percent of them are women and children and 15 percent, or at least 11,000, are foreign nationals, according to the United Nations.
Reducing the population of al-Hol will help ease the burden on aid groups that have been overwhelmed with the flow of people in the past months.