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Doctors Without Borders Evacuating Key Syrian Hospital Amid ISIS Offensive

People gather their belongings Friday as they leave a refugee camp because of an Islamic State offensive near Azaz, Syria.
Anadolu Agency
Getty Images
People gather their belongings Friday as they leave a refugee camp because of an Islamic State offensive near Azaz, Syria.

ISIS is making gains near Syria's border with Turkey, seizing a string of villages and trapping tens of thousands of civilians, according to Doctors Without Borders and a Syrian monitoring group.

The offensive has forced Doctors Without Borders to evacuate a major hospital outside the strategically located town of Azaz.

It's the closest the Islamic State has come to Azaz since the militants were pushed out at the beginning of 2014, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It says the push has cut off an important rebel supply route between Azaz and the town of Marea, an opposition stronghold to the south toward Syria's embattled largest city, Aleppo.

The Doctors Without Borders aid group, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF, announced Friday that it is evacuating the Al Salamah hospital because of the ISIS offensive, leaving behind a basic team with a doctor and nurses.

"We are terribly concerned about the fate of our hospital and our patients, and about the estimated 100,000 people trapped between the Turkish border and active front lines," Pablo Marco, the aid group's operations manager for the Middle East, said in a statement. "For some months, the front line has been around seven kilometers away from the hospital. Now it is only three kilometers from Al Salamah town. There is nowhere for people to flee to as the fighting gets closer."

Al Salamah is just north of Azaz, along Syria's border with Turkey. According to Doctors Without Borders, the hospital is the largest of its six medical facilities in Syria: "Its services include an operating theater, emergency room, pediatric care, in- and out-patient departments, and maternal care."

NPR's Alison Meuse, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reports that as a result of the Islamic State's territorial gains, "the rebel-held area north of Aleppo has been severed in two." At least 30 rebel fighters and nine civilians have been killed during the offensive, according to the monitoring group.

Photos published Friday by Turkey's Anadolu Agency show displaced Syrians frantically gathering their belongings from tents as they flee the fighting.

The Guardian recently described Azaz as "ground zero of the war for the north of Syria." It's a key gateway into the country that has recently seen Russian airstrikes and offensives from many other players in Syria's conflict.

As The Associated Press explains, "Syrian rebel factions in Azaz, and its border crossing of Bab al-Salama, have separately come under fire from the extremist IS group, pro-government forces and the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces."

As the Two-Way has reported, a deadly airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo in April, killing at least 50 people.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.