GENEVA — The number of Syrians who have fled their country after six years of civil war has surpassed the 5-million mark, the U.N. refugee agency said on Thursday.
UNHCR announced the milestone a year after participating countries at a Geneva conference pledged to "resettle and facilitate pathways for 500,000 refugees" from Syria — but only half of those places have been allocated so far.
Meanwhile, the war in Syria is not letting up.
A Syrian doctor in a rebel-held area in the central province of Hama said government airstrikes were suspected of using toxic gas on Thursday on civilians and opposition fighters in the town of Latamneh.
The doctor said his hospital treated nearly 40 people, including women and children, who were injured in two separate attacks early in the day. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that 50 people were suffering from breathing difficulties following government barrel bombs.
This is the second time such reports from this area in Hama have emerged. The doctor, who uses the name of Abu Mohammed, out of fear of reprisals, said his hospital was directly hit by suspected toxic gas last Saturday, killing a 40-year-old surgeon who suffocated while performing a surgery.
Another medical staffer has been taken to Turkey for treatment, he added. Chlorine gas was suspected in Saturday's attack but on Thursday, the doctor said he believes another toxic gas was used but he couldn't' identify it.
Some had milder symptoms, including muscle spasms, while the more severely affected ones foamed at the mouth, had severe breathing difficulties and even epileptic seizures, Abu Mohammed said, adding that two people remain in critical condition and on ventilators.
"We don't have gas masks, or training for this sort of attack by toxic gas," he added.
Use of chemical gas in attacks in Syria is not new. Human Rights Watch accused the Syrian government of conducting at least eight chemical attacks using chlorine gas on opposition-controlled residential areas during the final months in the battle for Aleppo last year that killed at least nine civilians and injured 200.
A joint investigation by the United Nations and the international chemical weapons watchdog determined the Syrian government was behind at least three attacks in 2014 and 2015 involving chlorine gas and the Islamic State group was responsible for at least one involving mustard gas.
In Geneva, UNHCR said huge challenges remain.
In the six years of the Syrian conflict, nearly 400,000 people have been killed, and half of the country's population has been displaced by the violence.
"We still have a long road to travel in expanding resettlement and the number and range of complementary pathways available for refugees," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
"To meet this challenge, we not only need additional places, but also need to accelerate the implementation of existing pledges," he added.
Agency spokesman Babar Baloch said that no specific incident prompted the crossing of the symbolic milestone, and that one year ago, the figure was 4.8 million. The agency estimates another 6.3 million people have been internally displaced within Syria.
Turkey, which has taken in the most Syrians by far, has seen an increase of 47,000 Syrian refugees since February — bringing its total to 2.97 million, Baloch said. Lebanon and Jordan have taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
The United States has the world's largest resettlement program, and has pledged to make 64,000 places available for Syrians, Baloch added.
The Trump administration has sought to reduce the program, though Baloch said the agency's efforts to help resettle Syrians in the United States are continuing amid U.S. court battles over the issue.
El Deeb reported from Beirut.
Jamey Keaten And Sarah El Deeb, The Associated Press