BEIRUT, REUTERS, Feb 5, 2016 - Tens of thousands of Syrians fled an intensifying Russian assault around Aleppo on Friday.
Iran reported one of its generals had been killed on the front line, giving direct confirmation of the role Tehran is playing along with Moscow in what appears to be one of the most determined offensives in five years of civil war.
The government assault around Aleppo, and advances in the south and northwest, helped to torpedo Geneva peace talks this week.
Video footage showed thousands of people massing at the Bab al-Salam crossing on the Turkish border. Men carried luggage on their heads, and the elderly and those unable to walk were brought in wheelchairs. Women sat on the side of the road holding babies and waiting to be allowed into Turkey.
"The situation in Aleppo is a humanitarian catastrophe,” said an opposition spokesman still in Geneva after the ill-fated peace talks. “The international community must take urgent, concrete steps to address it.”
NON-STOP RUSSIAN AIR STRIKES
"The Russian (air) cover continues night and day, there were more than 250 air strikes on this area in one day," Hassan Haj Ali, head of Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, a rebel group fighting in northwest Syria, told Reuters.
"The regime is now trying to expand the area it has taken control of," he added. "Now the northern countryside (of Aleppo) is totally encircled, and the humanitarian situation is very difficult."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said some 120 fighters on all sides had been killed around Ratyan.
Haj Ali said most of the fighters on the government side were "Iranian and from Hezbollah, or Afghan".
Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency said Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier-General Mohsen Ghajarian had been killed in Aleppo province, as had six Iranian volunteer militiamen.
The talks convened this week in Geneva were the first diplomatic attempt to end the war in two years but collapsed before they began in earnest. The opposition refused to negotiate while Russia was escalating its bombing and government troops were advancing.
NATO said Moscow's intensified bombing campaign undermined the peace efforts and warned Russia was creating tensions by violating the airspace of Syria's neighbor Turkey, a NATO member which shot down a Russian warplane in November.
Russia has accused Turkey of preparing a military incursion into northern Syria. Ankara dismissed this as propaganda intended to conceal Russia's own "crimes". Aleppo was threatened with a "siege of starvation", and Turkey had the right to take any measures to protect its security, it said.
"The intense Russia air strikes, mainly targeting opposition groups in Syria, is undermining the efforts to find a political solution to the conflict," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Russian violations of Turkish airspace were "causing increased tensions and ... create risks".
Saudi Arabia said it was ready to participate in separate U.S. ground operations against Islamic State. The United States welcomed the Saudi offer, although Washington so far has committed only to small scale operations by special forces units on the ground in Syria.