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FILE PHOTO: An internally displaced woman sits outside a tent in Idlib province, Syria July 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Sunday appealed to all parties who have influence in Syria to defend human rights and safeguard the civilian population in the rebel-held northern region of Idlib, which faces an imminent attack by government forces.

After seven years of civil war, the Syrian province of Idlib and surrounding areas are the last major enclave held by rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close Russian ally.

A source has told Reuters Assad is preparing a phased offensive to regain the province.

"The winds of war are blowing and we are receiving troubling news about the risk of a possible humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, in the province of Idlib," Francis told thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square for his weekly blessing.

"I renew my heartfelt appeal to the international community and all the actors involved to use the tools of diplomacy, dialogue and negotiation to ensure the respect of international human rights and to safeguard civilian lives," he added.

A major offensive in the Idlib area, where displaced people already make up half the population, risks forcing another 700,000 Syrians from their homes, the United Nations has said.

Syria's foreign minister said on Thursday government forces would "go all the way" in Idlib, and that Damascus's main targets were al-Nusra militants. The minister said Syria would try to avoid civilian deaths.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday the United States viewed a military assault on Idlib as an escalation of the Syrian conflict.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Reuters