Red Cross warns aid groups not enough to stave off Afghan humanitarian crisis

By Alexander Cornwell

DUBAI (Reuters) – The Red Cross on Friday urged the international community to engage with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, saying that aid groups on their own would be unable to stave off a humanitarian crisis.

Afghanistan has been plunged into crisis by the abrupt end of billions of dollars in foreign assistance following the collapse of the Western-backed government and return to power by the Taliban in August.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has since increased its efforts in the country while other organizations were also stepping up, Director General Robert Mardini said.

But he told Reuters that support from the international community, who had so far taken a cautious approach in engaging with the Taliban, was critical to providing basic services.

“Humanitarian organizations joining forces can only do so much. They can come up with temporary solutions.”

The United Nations on Thursday announced it had set up a fund to provide cash directly to Afghans, which Mardini said would solve the problem for three months.

“Afghanistan is a compounded crisis that is deteriorating by the day,” he said, citing decades of conflict compounded by the effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mardini said 30% of Afghanistan’s 39 million population were facing severe malnutrition and that 18 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance or protection.

The Taliban expelled many foreign aid groups when it was last in power from 1996-2001 but this time has said it welcomes foreign donors and will protect the rights of their staff.

But the hardline Islamists, facing criticism it has failed to protect rights, including access to education for girls, have also said aid should not be tied to conditions.

“No humanitarian organization can compensate or replace the economy of a country,” Mardini said.

(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. gives Myanmar $50 million in aid as humanitarian crisis worsens

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Tuesday it was giving Myanmar more than $50 million in aid as surging COVID-19 infections worsened a humanitarian crisis in the Southeast Asian country already reeling after generals overthrew a democratically elected government earlier this year.

It is also providing Thailand with $5 million to cope with novel coronavirus, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, announced the funding during a visit to Thailand, he added.

In Myanmar, the U.S. funding will aid “those forced to flee violence and persecution” as well as help groups provide health care services in addition to essentials such as food, shelter and water, the State Department said.

“This funding comes at a critical point of rising humanitarian needs and will help mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the lives of the people of both Thailand and Burma,” Price said. “In the wake of the February 1 coup, people from Burma continue to flee their homes due to ongoing violence.”

Six months after the army seized power, Myanmar’s economy has collapsed and its health system has buckled as coronavirus cases surged.

COVID-19 cases peaked in Myanmar last month, with 3,824 new daily infections now reported on average, Reuters data show. It has seen 333,127 infections and 12,014 coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

In Thailand, the average number of new COVID-19 infections are at their peak, with more than 20,400 cases reported daily, according to Reuters data.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Anil D’Silva)

Exodus to jungles, villages as Myanmar troops retake town

(Reuters) – Thousands of residents of a hill town in northwest Myanmar were hiding in jungles, villages and valleys on Monday after fleeing an assault by state troops, witnesses said, as the army advanced into the town after days battling local militias.

Mindat, about 100 km (60 miles) from the Indian border in Chin state, has seen some of the most intense fighting since a Feb. 1 coup that has led to the emergence of ragtag local armies that are stifling the junta’s bid to consolidate power.

Martial law was declared in Mindat on Thursday before the army launched its assault, using artillery and helicopters against a newly formed Chinland Defense Force, a militia armed mainly with hunting rifles, which said it had pulled back to spare civilians from being caught in the crossfire.

Several residents reached by Reuters said food was in short supply and estimated as many as 5,000 to 8,000 people had fled the town, with roads blocked and the presence of troops in the streets preventing their return.

“Almost everyone left the city,” said a volunteer fighter who said she was in a jungle. “Most of them are in hiding.”

A representative of the local people’s administrative group of Mindat said he was among some 200 people, including women and children, who had trekked across rocky roads and hills carrying blankets, rice and cooking pots.

He said the group was attacked with heavy weapons when troops spotted smoke from their cooking fires.

“We have to move from one place to another. We cannot settle in a place in the jungle,” he told Reuters by phone.

“Some men were arrested as they went into town to get more food for us. We cannot get into town currently. We are going to starve in few days.”

The Chinland Defense Forces in a statement on Monday said it had killed five government troops in Hakha, another town in Chin State.

The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF in a tweet urged security forces to ensure safety of children in Mindat, the latest international call for restraint after human rights groups, the United States and Britain condemned the use of war weapons against civilians.

MULTIPLE FRONTS

The United States, Britain and Canada on Monday announced more sanctions against businesses and individuals tied to the junta. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged more countries to follow suit.

Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with the military battling armed and peaceful resistance on multiple fronts, adding to concerns about economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis from old conflicts reigniting in border regions.

The fighters in Chin State say they are part of the People’s Defense Forces of the shadow government, which has called on the international community for help.

In an effort to coordinate the anti-junta forces, the shadow government on Monday issued a list of instructions to all the civilian armies, which it said must operate under its command and control.

Aid groups in direct contact with residents of Mindat made urgent calls on social media on Monday for donations or food, clothing and medicine.

Salai, 24, who has been organizing an emergency response, said she had spoken to people hiding in a valley and on farmland who had fled the advance of soldiers.

“They looted people’s property. They burned down people’s houses. It is really upsetting,” said Salai.

“Some in the town were injured by gunshots, including a young girl. She cannot get medical treatment.”

A military spokesman did not answer calls or messages seeking comment.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said security forces returned fire after coming under attack from insurgents in Mindat, who fled, and that government troops had been attacked elsewhere in Chin State.

So far, 790 people have been killed in the junta’s crackdown on its opponents, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The military disputes that figure. Reuters cannot independently verify arrests and casualty numbers.

The military says it intervened after its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were ignored.

An international monitoring group on Monday said the results of that election “were, by and large, representative of the will of the people of Myanmar”.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Nearly a million going hungry in conflict-hit Mozambique, U.N. says

GENEVA (Reuters) -Almost one million people face severe hunger in northern Mozambique, where hundreds of thousands have fled Islamist militant attacks, the United Nations food agency said on Tuesday.

Islamic State-linked insurgents last month attacked Palma, a town in Cabo Delgado province next to gas projects under development by companies including Total and Exxon.

The World Food Program (WFP) said in a briefing in Geneva that 950,000 people are now hungry in Mozambique. It appealed to donors for $82 million to confront the crisis.

“Families and individuals have had to abandon their belongings and livelihoods and flee for safety…adding to an already desperate situation in Northern Mozambique,” WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri said.

The U.N. Children Fund’s director of emergencies, Manuel Fontaine, told the same briefing: “We are facing both a large and likely long-lasting humanitarian situation.”

The population in some towns had doubled or even tripled as displaced people arrived, he said.

About 690,000 people were already displaced across the country by February. A further 16,500 have since been registered in other areas of Cabo Delgado after fleeing the attack in Palma, the International Organization for Migration said.

Tens of thousands more are still displaced within Palma district or are on the move, the U.N. humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, said on Monday

Many fled to a nearby village called Quitunda, built by French energy giant Total to house those displaced by its $20 billion gas project.

People there have little access to food, no protection and gather in their hundreds at Total’s site every day desperate for evacuation, a witness told Reuters. Total pulled its staff from the site due to nearby insurgent activity on April 2.

Total has also suspended operations in the provincial capital of Pemba, a source told Reuters. Total did not immediately provide a comment.

Mozambique’s Centre for Public Integrity said the government had failed to manage the crisis, relying mostly on aid agencies to provide support for those fleeing the violence. Many stayed in war zones as they had no means to reach safer areas, it said.

Authorities are still working to identify 12 beheaded bodies found in Palma after the attack, which both police and army officials said were believed to be foreigners.

Mozambique’s population is mostly Christian. Cabo Delgado is one of only a few provinces that have a Muslim majority.

The country remains one of Africa’s poorest and underdeveloped despite its natural resources, and the Islamist insurgency is a rapidly growing threat after a few years of relative peace following a succession of wars.

($1 = 55.5 meticais)

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson in Geneva and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Additional reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo, Catarina Demony in Lison and Geert De Clercq in Paris; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay, Joe Bavier and Angus MacSwan)

Biden dispatches U.S. senator to Ethiopia over humanitarian crisis

By Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden is sending Senator Chris Coons to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and convey the president’s “grave concerns” over the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region, where thousands have died following fighting.

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Thursday that Coons – a longtime Biden ally – would also consult with the African Union.

“Senator Coons will convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa,” Sullivan said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken this month described acts carried out in the region as ethnic cleansing, an allegation rejected by Ethiopia.

“(The accusation) is a completely unfounded and spurious verdict against the Ethiopian government,” Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said on March 13, reacting to the allegation of ethnic cleansing.

“Nothing during or after the end of the main law enforcement operation in Tigray can be identified or defined by any standards as a targeted, intentional ethnic cleansing against anyone in the region,” it said. “The Ethiopian government vehemently opposes such accusations.”

Coons, who is expected to depart on Thursday, said in a statement that he looked forward to engaging with Abiy and conveying Biden’s concern.

“The United States is gravely concerned by the deteriorating situation in the Tigray, which threatens the peace and stability of the Horn of Africa region,” Coons said.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November, after what it said was a surprise assault on its forces in the region bordering Eritrea.

The government has said that most fighting has ceased but has acknowledged there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have denied the involvement of Eritrean troops in the fighting alongside Ethiopian forces, although dozens of witnesses, diplomats and an Ethiopian general have reported their presence.

Thousands of people have died following the fighting, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in Tigray, a region of more than 5 million people.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Yemenis reel from poverty, hunger as U.N. pleads for funds and war’s end

SANAA (Reuters) – Unable to find work, Ahmed Farea has sold everything including his wife’s gold to feed and house two young daughters in one small room.

Elsewhere in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, widow Mona Muhammad has work but struggles to buy anything more nutritious than rice for her four children amid high prices.

And in a nearby hospital, severely malnourished children receive lifesaving nutritional drinks.

Across the country Yemenis are exhausting their coping mechanisms, and children are starving, amid the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what the U.N. aid chief has said would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.

“I want the war to stop so we can go back to how we were … We could buy what we wanted and could feed our children,” said Muhammad.

Yemen was a poor country with a child malnutrition problem even before the six-year war disrupted imports, inflated the currency, displaced people, collapsed government services and destroyed incomes. Then COVID-19 hammered remittances from abroad that many families relied on.

‘UNIMAGINABLY CRUEL’

“Since the war and the blockade started, and work stopped, I can’t buy anything anymore. Where am I supposed to get it from?” said Farea, who wheels his barrow daily to collect water in cans from a neighborhood tank provided for poor people.

“I sleep all morning and then have lunch at noon from whatever God supplies and that covers the rest of the day.”

His work in construction declined in the wake of the political upheaval caused by Yemen’s 2011 uprising, he said. He then sold fruit but rising prices after war broke out in late 2014 made this unprofitable.

As needs have risen in the past year, funding of the aid response has dropped, leading the U.N. and other aid agencies to scale down or close various assistance programs.

Famine has never been officially declared in Yemen but pockets of famine-like conditions have appeared for the first time in two years, the U.N. has said.

In 2018 and 2019, the U.N. prevented famine due to a well-funded aid appeal. But in 2020 the world body only received just over half the $3.4 billion it needed.

“What is happening to the people of Yemen is unimaginably cruel. Aid groups are catastrophically underfunded and overstretched. The parties to this senseless war specialize in producing suffering and the weapon of choice is hunger,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, on a visit to Yemen.

There has been a recent renewed push by the U.N. and the United States for a negotiated end to the war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. New U.S. President Joe Biden has said Yemen is a priority, declaring a halt to U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign.

(Reporting by Reuters Yemen team,; Writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Yemen famine could threaten opportunity for peace, U.N. warns

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A massive famine could wipe out a new opportunity, created by renewed U.S. engagement, to end the war in Yemen, top U.N. officials told the Security Council on Thursday.

U.N. Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths also called for a stop to an offensive by the Houthi movement on the government-held city of Marib, warning “the quest for territorial gain by force threatens all of the prospects of the peace process.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has made ending the conflict in Yemen a priority since taking office last month, appointing a special envoy and ending U.S. support for offensive operations by Saudi Arabia in neighboring Yemen.

“International support for ending the conflict is indispensable, and this offers us a new opportunity to reopen space for a negotiated solution,” Griffiths told the 15-member Security Council.

However, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock then warned: “There’s an important opportunity right now to help Yemen move towards lasting peace … but that opportunity will disappear, it will be wasted, if Yemen tips into a massive famine.”

The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of help.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis. The more than six-year-long conflict is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Griffiths visited Tehran this month for the first time since becoming the U.N. envoy three years ago. He made no reference to his visit during his public Security Council statement.

He said the warring parties needed to immediately agree to a nationwide ceasefire, allow the unhindered flow of fuel and other commodities into Hodeidah port and permit international commercial traffic to use Sanaa airport. Griffiths said these issues had been discussed regularly for the past year.

“What is needed is simply and fundamentally the political will to end this conflict. We know need a decision,” he said.

Lowcock said some $4 billion was needed in 2021 to fund humanitarian operations as “Yemen is speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Switzerland and Sweden plan to convene a pledging conference on March 1 to raise funds for Yemen.

When famine loomed in 2019, Lowcock said it was averted after the United Nations received about 90 percent of the $4 billion it requested. But last year the world body only received about $1.9 billion, about half of what it needed.

Lowcock said some 16 million people in Yemen were going hungry and 5 million of those people are “just one step away from famine.”

Some 400,000 children under the age of 5 are severely malnourished, he said. “Those children are in their last weeks and months,” he warned. “They are starving to death.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)

Saudis seek buffer zone with Yemen in return for ceasefire, sources say

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has told Yemen’s Houthis in high-level back channel talks it would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire if the Iran-aligned group agrees to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders, three sources familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is struck, it would mark the biggest breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement since the conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran – began in 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledged in his election campaign to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, to pressure Riyadh to end the war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and its biggest populated areas, may be less willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia if President Donald Trump carries out threats to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) before leaving office, the sources said.

Washington and Riyadh see the Yemeni group as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Recently the two parties, holding virtual discussions, raised the level of representation in the talks, with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official, two of the sources said.

Riyadh has demanded more security assurances from the Houthis, including a buffer zone along the borders with northern Yemen until a U.N.-backed transitional government is formed, the sources said.

Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire.

In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.

Last year, Riyadh launched indirect talks with the Houthis, as it seeks a way out of the conflict that has drawn criticism from Biden, killed tens of thousands of people and tarnished the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks have stalled over the last two months, the sources said, as fighting escalated in the gas-rich region of Marib, where the Houthis have launched an offensive to drive out Saudi-backed forces.

Marib is the last stronghold of the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis in late 2014.

That prompted the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, to intervene.

Complicating matters, the fighting fragmented, spawning a multi-layered war that has lasted nearly six years.

‘CONSULTATIONS ON IRAN’

Trump’s administration, to support the Saudis, has exerted pressure on the Houthis by threatening to designate the group as a terrorist organization, said two of the three sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Any decision by Washington to blacklist the Houthis, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, would be “devastating” after years of peace efforts led by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and other Western ambassadors, they added.

One of the sources said that experts in the U.S. administration have advised Trump against an FTO designation.

The State Department did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The discreet talks between the kingdom and the Houthis have dragged on for more than a year, in parallel with Griffiths’ efforts to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

The U.N. is working to secure a face-to-face meeting before the end of the year, as well as an agreement on a joint declaration that would halt all air, ground and naval hostilities, two of the sources said.

Europe would be a logical venue for them to meet, one of the sources said, as the U.N. seeks neutral grounds for the talks. Griffith’s office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Indian police fire tear gas on jobless workers defying coronavirus lockdown

By Sanjeev Miglani and Sumit Khanna

NEW DELHI/AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) – Police in western India fired tear gas to disperse a stone-pelting crowd of migrant workers defying a three-week lockdown against the coronavirus that has left hundreds of thousands of poor without jobs and hungry, authorities said on Monday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country’s 1.3 billion people to remain indoors until April 15, declaring such self-isolation was the only hope to stop the viral pandemic.

But the vast shutdown has triggered a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers employed in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai seeking to head to their homes in the countryside on foot after losing their jobs.

Many have been walking for days, some with families including small children, on deserted highways with little access to food or water.

On Sunday, about 500 workers clashed with police in the western city of Surat demanding they be allowed to go home to other parts of India because they had no jobs left.

“The police tried to convince them that it is not possible since buses or trains are not available…However, the workers refused to budge, and started pelting stones at police,” Surat deputy commissioner of police Vidhi Chaudhari said.

She said the workers, most of them employed in the shuttered textile industry in Surat, were driven indoors by tear gas volleys and on Monday 93 of them were detained for violating lockdown orders.

TIP OF ICEBERG

India has registered 1,071 cases of the coronavirus, of whom 29 have died, the health ministry said on Monday. The number of known cases is small compared with the United States, Italy and China, but health officials say India is weeks away from a huge surge that could overwhelm its weak public health system.

A health official said the large scale movement of people into the countryside risked spreading the coronavirus widely, compounding the challenge of containing the outbreak in the world’s second most populous country.

“It’s an evolving situation with daily new challenges coming up, like having migratory populations moving from one place to another. Like non-affected states adjoining affected states,” said Dr S.K. Singh, director of the National Centre for Disease Control, which investigates and recommends control measures for outbreaks of illness.

Homeless people wait for food, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, health workers dressed in protection suits sprayed disinfectant on a group of migrant workers who were also trying to make the journey home to their villages, local television showed. They were made to sit on a street corner in the Bareilly district and doused with hose pipes, prompting anger on social media.

Nitish Kumar, the top government official in the district, later said health workers had been ordered to disinfect buses being used by the local authorities but in their zeal they had also turned their hoses onto migrant workers.

“I have asked for action to be taken against those responsible for this,” he said in a tweet.

The federal government said on Monday that it had no plans to extend the shutdown beyond the three-week period.

But neighbouring Nepal announced it would prolong its shutdown for another week from Tuesday. The landlocked country has reported only five cases of the virus and no deaths, but it is concerned contagion will spread as more people travel.

(Additional reporting by Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi, Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru, Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu, Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

“I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday. “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib which have collapsed.

Russian air strikes have propelled an offensive by Assad’s forces in Idlib that sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

MORE DEATHS

The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)