U.S. coronavirus cases rise by 47,000, biggest one-day spike of pandemic

By Paul Simao and Carl O’Donnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – New U.S. COVID-19 cases rose by more than 47,000 on Tuesday according to a Reuters tally, the biggest one-day spike since the start of the pandemic, as the government’s top infectious disease expert warned that number could soon double.

California, Texas and Arizona have emerged as new U.S. epicenters of the pandemic, reporting record increases in COVID-19 cases.

“Clearly we are not in total control right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate committee. “I am very concerned because it could get very bad.”

Fauci said the daily increase in new cases could reach 100,000 unless a nationwide push was made to tamp down the resurgent virus.

“We can’t just focus on those areas that are having the surge. It puts the entire country at risk,” he said.

Fauci said there was no guarantee of a vaccine, although early data had been promising: “Hopefully there will be doses available by the beginning of next year,” he said.

COVID-19 cases more than doubled in June in at least 10 states, including Texas and Florida, a Reuters tally showed. In parts of Texas and Arizona, hospital intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients are in short supply.

More than 126,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions have lost their jobs as states and major cities ordered residents to stay home and businesses closed. The economy contracted sharply in the first quarter and is expected to crater in the second.

‘TRUMP FAILED US’

The European Union has excluded Americans from its “safe list” of countries from which the block will allow non-essential travel beginning on Wednesday.

The fresh rise in cases and hospitalizations has dimmed hopes that the worst of the human and economic pain had passed, prompting renewed criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

His rival, Democrat Joe Biden, on Tuesday said that Trump’s “historic mismanagement” of the pandemic cost lives and inflicted more damage than necessary to the U.S. economy.

“It didn’t have to be this way. Donald Trump failed us,” the 77-year-old former vice president said in a speech in Delaware, where he unveiled an updated plan to tackle the pandemic calling for more testing and the hiring of 100,000 contract tracers.

In the past week California, Texas and Florida have moved to close recently reopened bars, which public health officials believe are likely one of the larger contributors to the recent spikes.

On Tuesday, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut added travelers from California and seven other states to those who must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Texas and Florida were named last week.

South Carolina also has also emerged as a hot spot, reporting a record single-day increase of 1,755 cases on Tuesday.

In Texas, where the number of new cases jumped to a one-day record of 6,975 on Tuesday, Houston hospitals said beds were quickly filling up with COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Marc Boom, chief executive of Houston Methodist Hospital, told CNN on Tuesday that his hospital beds have seen a “very significant” increase in COVID-19 patients, although the death rate has lowered.

Boom said he was worried about Independence Day celebrations this weekend, when Americans traditionally flock to beaches and campgrounds to watch fireworks displays.

“Frankly it scares me,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Trevor Hunnicutt, Simon Lewis, Saumya Joseph, Brad Brooks, Susan Heavey, Maria Caspani and Paul Simao; Writing by Nathan Layne and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Richard Pullin)

California, Texas see record COVID-19 surges, Arizona clamps down

By Dan Whitcomb and Maria Caspani

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California and Texas both marked record spikes in new COVID-19 infections on Monday, a Reuters tally showed, as Los Angeles reported an “alarming” one-day surge in America’s second-largest city that put it over 100,000 cases.

Los Angeles has become a new epicenter in the pandemic as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge there despite California Governor Gavin Newsom’s strict orders requiring bars to close and residents to wear masks in nearly all public spaces.

“The alarming increases in cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations signals that we, as a community, need to take immediate action to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for Los Angeles County, said in a statement announcing the sharp rise.

“Otherwise, we are quickly moving toward overwhelming our healthcare system and seeing even more devastating illness and death,” Ferrer said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a “hard pause” on when movie theaters, theme parks and other entertainment venues can reopen. Los Angeles County is the biggest movie theater market in the United States.

Los Angeles County said its beaches will be closed for the Independence Day weekend and fireworks displays will be banned.

Statewide positive tests for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, rose by at least 7,418 in California Monday to nearly 223,000, the biggest one-day increase since tracking began. Los Angeles County, with a population of 10 million, has recorded 100,000 cases.

California is among a number of U.S. states including Florida, Texas and Arizona battling a new wave of infections as the nation emerges from weeks of clamp-downs on residents and businesses. COVID-19 infections in Texas rose by 6,545 on Monday to nearly 160,000, also setting a record for a one-day increase.

Nationally, cases rose by more than 40,000, for the fourth time in the past five days.

ARIZONA HIT HARD

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Monday ordered the closure of bars, nightclubs, gyms, movie theaters and water parks for at least 30 days. Ducey also delayed the start of public schools until at least Aug. 17.

“Our expectation is that next week our numbers will be worse,” Ducey said at an afternoon news conference. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Phoenix on Wednesday to discuss efforts to fight the pandemic’s resurgence.

Texas and Florida ordered the closure of all their recently reopened bars on Friday.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said on Monday indoor dining will not resume on Thursday as planned and would be postponed indefinitely.

In Kansas, Governor Laura Kelly imposed a statewide mandate requiring the wearing of masks in public spaces, which she said was necessary to avoid another shutdown.

Beaches in Florida’s Broward County and Palm Beach County will not open for the July 3-5 holiday weekend, officials said on Sunday, a blow to residents hoping to celebrate Independence Day there. Miami-Dade County has also announced beach closures for the holiday weekend.

AMC, the largest U.S. movie theater chain, on Monday said it was pushing back the reopening of its theaters to July 30 from July 15.

In June, 22 U.S. states reported record increases in new cases, often multiple times, including Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Utah.

The city of Jacksonville, Florida, venue for part of the Republican nominating convention in August, said on Twitter it would be requiring masks in public starting later on Monday.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Monday that Trump “has no problem with masks and to do whatever your local jurisdiction requests.”

The New York Times reported on Monday that 43% of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 were linked to nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The paper cited its own tracking database.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Lisa Shumaker in Chicago and Brad Brooks in Austin; Writing by Grant McCool and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman, Leslie Adler and Jane Wardell)

New York’s Cuomo says Trump should mandate masks in public to fight virus

(Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that President Donald Trump should issue an executive order mandating that people wear masks in public and he should lead by example and cover his face.

“The other states are just starting to do it now, states that were recalcitrant, governors who said ‘we don’t need to do this, masks don’t work,” Cuomo said at a media briefing. “Now they’re doing a 180…let the president have the same sense and do that as an executive order.”

Cuomo once again criticized the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying the White House has been “in denial” from the start of the public health crisis, and that it was not doing enough to tackle a surge in COVID-19 cases in several U.S. states that has emerged over the past few weeks.

The New York governor, who became one of the leading national voices during the pandemic, said that Trump’s focus on reopening the economy was misguided and that it had backfired.

“Yes, we have to get the economy going but reopening fast was not good for the economy,” Cuomo said. “What has been happening is, when that virus spikes, the market goes down, not up.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. ‘not above scrutiny’, urges other states to be open on racism: statement

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States is grappling with racial discrimination and implementing police reforms after the killing of George Floyd, but other countries should show the same level of openness, a U.S. envoy said on Wednesday ahead of a U.N. debate on racism.

Andrew Bremberg, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, issued a statement hours before the Human Rights Council (HRC) was to open an urgent debate at the request of African countries on racism and “police brutality” against protesters.

Activists said that U.S. officials were heavily lobbying African countries to tone down a draft resolution being considered so that it would not name the United States or set up a U.N. commission of inquiry, but rather a fact-finding mission.

African countries had lobbied to set up a U.N. inquiry into “systemic racism” and “police brutality” in the United States and elsewhere, aiming to defend the rights of people of African descent, the initial draft resolution showed.

“As the world’s leading advocate for human rights, we call upon all governments to demonstrate the same level of transparency and accountability that the U.S. and our democratic partners’ practice,” Bremberg said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has condemned the actions of police officers in Minneapolis, he said, referring to the city where Floyd died last month after being held under the knee of an officer, launching protests across the nation and the world.

Trump, facing criticism that his policies and inflammatory rhetoric have aggravated a racial divide in the United States, signed an order on Tuesday that he said would reform police practices even as he pressed for “law and order” nationwide.

“We are not above scrutiny; however, any HRC resolution on this topic that calls out countries by name should be inclusive, noting the many countries where racism is a problem,” Bremberg said.

Bremberg, in a thinly veiled reference to ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province, said that another member state stood “accused of running concentration camps directed at an ethnic minority”. In an apparent reference to Iran, he said that another state had murdered more than 1,500 peaceful protesters. Reuters reported in December that about 1,500 were killed in Iran during less than two weeks of unrest last year.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by William Maclean)

Rights groups urge U.N. to investigate U.S. ‘police violence’

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Relatives of victims and activist groups called on Monday for the top United Nations human rights body to launch an investigation into “police violence and repression of protests” in the United States.

The joint letter calling for a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council was sent to its 47 member states. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), and ee  (OMCT) were among some 600 groups that signed.

The Geneva forum, which is due to meet from June 15, can hold a special session if requested by one-third of its members. The United States quit the forum two years ago alleging an anti-Israel bias.

The letter was endorsed by the brother and son of George Floyd, the unarmed African American who died in handcuffs on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The police officer, who appeared in court on Monday, has been charged with second-degree and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter.

The death of Floyd, 46, was “only one of a recent string of unlawful killings of unarmed black people by police and armed white vigilantes,” the letter said.

“We are deeply concerned about the escalation in violent police responses to largely peaceful protests in the United States, which included the use of rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and in some cases live ammunition, in violation of international standards on the use of force and management of assemblies,” it said.

The groups voiced concern that “rather than using his position to serve as a force for calm and unity, President Trump has chosen to weaponize the tensions through his rhetoric”. They also denounced the deployment of more than 60,000 National Guard members in two dozen states.

Recent police killings of unarmed black people, as well as police use of excessive force, violate U.S. obligations under major international human rights treaties, they said, calling for the right to peaceful assembly and protest to be protected.

The rights council should launch an independent inquiry into “racist policing in cities across the country that continues with seeming impunity” since the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri in Aug 2014, and allegations of excessive use of force against peaceful protesters and journalists since Floyd’s murder, they said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Most people want billionaires to pitch in to aid poverty and inequality

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Eight out of 10 people think billionaires should help end poverty, inequality and a host of global ills, a poll showed on Wednesday, as funding shortages and the new coronavirus stymied hopes of meeting the United Nations’ development goals for 2030.

The ambitious plans, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were agreed unanimously by U.N. member states in 2015 with a list of targets to end hunger, gender inequality, and boost access to education and healthcare by 2030.

But researchers said there was now a shortfall of $400 billion a year to achieve those goals – with a financing gap of $350 billion in the 59 poorest countries alone – which would have global implications.

“Philanthropy can step in and plug huge critical gaps,” said Michael Sheldrick, chief policy officer at Global Citizen, an anti-poverty group, which surveyed almost 27,000 people in 25 countries together with Glocalities, a Dutch research agency.

“The COVID-19 is an example of that,” Sheldrick told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in New York.

“You’ve seen this upsurge in philanthropy, and our hope is that we can channel this into funding the SDGs more broadly.”

Organisations started by billionaires, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook, have donated millions towards testing, protective gear and other campaigns to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. [nL1N2B24YT][nFWN2BH18Q]

Twitter’s Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey earlier this month pledged $1 billion to a charitable fund to help relief efforts related to the coronavirus pandemic, with money later to be directed to girls’ health and education. [nL4N2BV4KS]

Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma pledged through his foundation to donate over 1 million coronavirus testing kits as well as masks, protective suits and ventilators to Africa.

WEALTH TAX OR PHILANTHROPY?

The poll found 82% of people said billionaires should help and contribute to funding the global goals.

On average there was more support for billionaires doing this through philanthropy, with 46% of respondents in favour of voluntary philanthropic donations, but 35% said they should pay a wealth tax to fund the sustainable development goals.

The countries most in favour of billionaires contributing to fund the SDGs were Indonesia, Vietnam and Portugal, while Japan, the Netherlands and the United States came last in the list of 25 countries.

The survey also found that people aged over 55 or aged 18 to 34 were more of the belief that billionaires should pitch in.

People with a higher education level were more in favour of billionaires playing a role, with 85% support, compared to 74% support from those with a lower education.

Experts have warned that the 2030 deadline to meet the U.N.’s development goals is at risk as economies suffer in the fight against the virus, public financing dries up and international cooperation wanes.

Around the world, there are more than 2,000 billionaires worth a combined $10 trillion, said Martijn Lampert, research director of Glocalities.

“People see that billionaires have a moral obligation to contribute,” he said. “This crisis shows the huge inequalities there are, and in the end I think every billionaire has to show his or her true color.”

The $350 billion shortfall, a calculation made prior to the pandemic, breaks down to about $200 per person in the 59 poorest countries, according to Global Citizen.

“We will need to tax high-net worth, especially after the current disaster,” said Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a U.N. initiative, who was involved in the study.

“Budgets everywhere are in disarray,” he said in emailed comments. “Inequality plus COVID-19 are leading to a profound social crisis.”

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Katy Migiro and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

WHO chief says pandemic ‘far from over’, worried about children

GENEVA (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic is “far from over” and is still disrupting normal health services, especially life-saving immunisation for children in the poorest countries, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

The U.N. agency is concerned about rising numbers of cases and deaths in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and some Asian countries, even as the numbers flatten or decline in some wealthier nations.

“We have a long road ahead of us and a lot of work to do,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual news conference in Geneva, adding that a second wave of infections could be prevented with the right actions.

The novel coronavirus, which emerged late last year in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has alrady infected 2.97 million and claimed 205,948 lives, according to the latest Reuters tally.

Tedros expressed concern that the health of children was being threatened by the impact of the coronavirus emergency on vaccination programmes for other diseases.

“Children may be at relatively low risk from severe disease and death from COVID-19 – the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus – but can be at high risk from other diseases that can be prevented with vaccines,” said Tedros.

Some 13 million people have been affected worldwide by delays in regular immunisations against diseases including polio, measles, cholera, yellow fever and meningitis, he said.

Shortages of vaccines against other diseases are being reported in 21 countries as a result of border restrictions and disruptions to travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Tedros said, citing the GAVI global vaccine alliance.

“The number of malaria cases in sub-Saharan Africa could double,” he said, referring to the potential impact of COVID-19 on regular malaria services. “That doesn’t have to happen, we are working with countries to support them.”

WHO’s top emergencies expert Dr. Mike Ryan, asked about some U.S. states lifting restrictions despite a lack of contact-tracing and the government’s handling of the crisis, said the United States seemed to have a “very clearly laid-out”, science-based federal plan for fighting its coronavirus epidemic.

“The federal government and the system of governors are working together to move America and its people through this very difficult situation,” Ryan said.

But the federal system linking 50 states made the situation “complex”, he added.

Ryan also repeated an earlier WHO warning against easing restrictions too soon.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva and Michael Shields in Zurich; editing by Gareth Jones)

Exclusive: Elite hackers target WHO as coronavirus cyberattacks spike

By Raphael Satter, Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) – Elite hackers tried to break into the World Health Organization earlier this month, sources told Reuters, part of what a senior agency official said was a more than two-fold increase in cyberattacks.

WHO Chief Information Security Officer Flavio Aggio said the identity of the hackers was unclear, but the effort was unsuccessful. He warned that hacking attempts against the agency and its partners have soared as they battle to contain the coronavirus, which has killed more than 15,000 worldwide.

The attempted break-in at the WHO was first flagged to Reuters by Alexander Urbelis, a cybersecurity expert and attorney with the New York-based Blackstone Law Group, which tracks suspicious internet domain registration activity.

Urbelis said he picked up on the activity around March 13, when a group of hackers he’d been following activated a malicious site mimicking the WHO’s internal email system.

“I realized quite quickly that this was a live attack on the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic,” he said.

Urbelis said he didn’t know who was responsible, but two other sources briefed on the matter said they suspected an advanced group of hackers known as DarkHotel, which has been conducting cyber-espionage operations since at least 2007.

Messages sent to email addresses maintained by the hackers went unreturned.

When asked by Reuters about the incident, the WHO’s Aggio confirmed that the site spotted by Urbelis had been used in an attempt to steal passwords from multiple agency staffers.

“There has been a big increase in targeting of the WHO and other cybersecurity incidents,” Aggio said in a telephone interview. “There are no hard numbers, but such compromise attempts against us and the use of (WHO) impersonations to target others have more than doubled.”

The WHO published an alert last month – available here warning that hackers are posing as the agency to steal money and sensitive information from the public.

The motives in the case identified by Reuters aren’t clear. United Nations agencies, the WHO among them, are regularly targeted by digital espionage campaigns and Aggio declined to say who precisely at the organization the hackers had in their sights.

Cybersecurity firms including Romania’s Bitdefender and Moscow-based Kaspersky said they have traced many of DarkHotel’s operations to East Asia – an area that has been particularly affected by the coronavirus. Specific targets have included government employees and business executives in places such as China, North Korea, Japan, and the United States.

Costin Raiu, head of global research and analysis at Kaspersky, could not confirm that DarkHotel was responsible for the WHO attack but said the same malicious web infrastructure had also been used to target other healthcare and humanitarian organizations in recent weeks.

“At times like this, any information about cures or tests or vaccines relating to coronavirus would be priceless and the priority of any intelligence organization of an affected country,” he said.

Officials and cybersecurity experts have warned that hackers of all stripes are seeking to capitalize on international concern over the spread of the coronavirus.

Urbelis said he has tracked thousands of coronavirus-themed web sites being set up daily, many of them obviously malicious.

“It’s still around 2,000 a day,” he said. “I have never seen anything like this.”

(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin)

U.N. hears plea from women in northwest Syria: ‘We want the right to live’

By Michelle Nichols

(Reuters) – Amid heavy fighting in northwest Syria between government forces backed by Russia and Syrian rebels supported by Turkey, the U.N. Security Council heard a plea on Thursday from women caught in the middle: “All we are asking, is for the misery to stop, for the killing to stop. We want the right to live.”

The message was shared by deputy U.N. aid chief Ursula Mueller, who spoke via videolink to 14 Syrian women in Idlib and northern Aleppo last week.

“What is happening in northwest Syria, they said, is beyond imagination. It is not humanly tolerable. They told me of children so traumatized they no longer speak,” Mueller said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air power, have been fighting to retake the last large, rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war. Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Idlib region in an unprecedented incursion to back the rebels.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the conflict. A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war.

Mueller and Henrietta Fore, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told the Security Council that hospitals, schools and camps for displaced families had been hit in recent fighting.

“We’ve heard and read reports of children freezing to death,” Fore said. “When wood runs out, families burn whatever they can find — plastic bags, garbage, discarded furniture — just to provide a flicker of heat against the cold, or a simple fire to cook whatever food they can find.”

Defending Moscow’s role in the conflict, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia questioned why the United Nations and aid groups weren’t more prepared to deal with millions of displaced people in Idlib during the winter.

“The humanitarian workers have plenty of resources so why hasn’t this problem been resolved?” he asked.

Britain’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen responded: “The answer is because they’re being bombed, they’re being shelled, they’re being attacked. It is extremely difficult indeed to provide assistance to people in those circumstances.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, said that to end the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria all efforts must be concentrated on establishing a durable and verifiable ceasefire.

“This will require Russia to ground its planes at once and tell the regime to pull back its forces,” she told the council.

However, Nebenzia said: “The only long-term solution to the problem of Idlib and … of Syria as a whole is a final and irreversible expulsion from the country of all terrorists. And please don’t tell us we’re exaggerating the problem.”

Both Mueller and Fore appealed for action from the council, which has long been divided on how to deal with Syria. Russia had vetoed 14 draft resolutions during the war.

“Millions of Syrian children are crying tonight – from hunger and cold, from wounds and pain, from fear, loss and heartbreak,” Fore said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Battle rages over strategic Syrian town of Saraqeb as humanitarian catastrophe unfolds

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces said on Thursday they had recaptured the crossroads town of Saraqeb, marking a first big push-back of a Syrian government offensive.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said developments were turning in Ankara’s favor, three weeks after the armed rebel opposition lost the northwestern town at the crossroads of two main highways to the Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The Syrian army has pushed hard in recent months to retake the last large rebel-held region in northwestern Syria after nine years of war that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Syria’s Idlib province in an incursion to back the rebels against the offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the war.

The United Nations said on Thursday the battle was having “catastrophic” humanitarian consequences, with the civilian death toll rising and schools and hospitals destroyed.

At least 134 civilians, including 44 children, had been killed in February alone, Najat Rochdi, the United Nations’ senior humanitarian adviser on northwest Syria, said in Geneva.

Seven children were among 11 people killed when an air strike hit a school in northern Idlib on Tuesday, she said.

Rochdi also reiterated a call by the United Nations Secretary-General for a ceasefire.

In Ankara, Erdogan said he would press on with the campaign as he announced that the death toll of the Turkish military forces in the region this month had risen to 21.

“Developments in Idlib have turned to our advantage. We have three martyrs, let them rest in peace. But on the other hand, the regime’s losses are very big,” he said in a speech.

“Our battle will continue. Our talks with the Russians continue,” he said. “If there was no support from Russia or Iran, it would be impossible for Assad to stand.”

Earlier, the Turkish-backed rebels said they made advances in Idlib.

“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front.

A Russian military source cited by Russian news agencies denied that, saying Syrian government forces had successfully repelled a rebel attack on the town.

A Turkish official subsequently said Assad’s forces, backed by Russian warplanes, had launched an assault to take back Saraqeb. “There are violent clashes,” he told Reuters.

With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.

Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in southern Idlib and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rebels said heavy fighting was still raging in an area that the army, backed by Iranian-militias, had gained in new advances which the war monitor said had secured for the pro-government forces control of all of southern Idlib.

Opposition sources said a counter-offensive was underway.

TURKEY-RUSSIA TALKS FALTER

The push on Saraqeb comes before an end-of-February deadline set by Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Ankara says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.

Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back and the spokesman of his AK Party, Omer Celik, said on Thursday preparations were complete.

“When the time given to the regime to withdraw expires, the Turkish Armed Forces will carry out their duties based on the orders they receive and nobody should doubt our determination about this,” Celik said.

Celik said work on a date for a meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Idlib was till ongoing. Turkish and Russian officials were holding a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday. Two previous rounds in Ankara and Moscow have not yielded tangible progress.

As well as sending troops, tanks and artillery into the region across its border, Ankara has set up new outposts in what rebels say is preparation for a Turkish operation.

A senior opposition figure in touch with Turkey’s military said the Turkish-backed campaign would continue until the Syrian army was expelled from the buffer zone, and only then would serious negotiations begin over a settlement.

Turkey, which has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot handle another influx and has closed the border. Some migrants have made homes along the border wall, using it to prop up tents and shelters.

Ibrahim al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said Saraqeb’s seizure eased pressure on rebels, who in recent days lost significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.

Saraqeb is at the crossroads of two highways linking the capital of Damascus, Syria’s second largest city Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.

Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.

U.N. adviser Rochdi said air strikes and shelling were affecting dozens of communities and villages in Idlib and Hama, and 11 medical facilities and 15 schools had been hit this month.

“There are reports of multiple children freezing to death. The needs of civilians in the northwest are exceeding the humanitarian response capacity,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrey Kuzmin and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan)