Fierce fighting in Syria swells refugee exodus

AMMAN Fri Aug 24, 2012 5:55pm EDT

1 of 17. Members of the Free Syrian Army exchange places as they take cover during clashes with Syrian army soldiers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, August 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Zain Karam

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian troops forced rebels to abandon a battered Damascus suburb on Friday in the latest battle of an intensifying civil war that the U.N. refugee agency said had prompted more than 200,000 people to flee the country.

Hundreds of soldiers and dozens of tanks and armored vehicles pushed into the centre of Daraya after a small group of defenders withdrew, opposition activists said.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces had subjected the Sunni Muslim township to a three-day bombardment from artillery, tanks, mortars, rockets and helicopter gunships in which at least 70 people were killed, 21 of them on Friday they said.

"There are lots of bodies trapped in destroyed buildings and civilians are trying to flee towards Damascus," an activist in Daraya, who gave his name as Abu Kinan, told Reuters by phone.

"The rebels have mostly slipped away. The fear now is that the army will round up young men and summarily execute them, like it did in Mouadamiya," he said, referring to a nearby suburb where residents said troops killed at least 40 people in cold blood this week after storming in to hunt down rebels.

Opposition sources reported a similar killing spree by Assad's forces in the Qaboun district of Damascus, where they said at least 46 people were done to death.

Syrian authorities restrict media access, making it hard to verify accounts by both sides in the conflict.

More than 90 people were killed across Syria on Friday, including 22 civilians in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said about 220 had been killed nationwide on Thursday.

The incessant violence has accelerated a refugee exodus, with more than 3,500 Syrians fleeing to Turkey in the past 24 hours in what Turkish officials said was one of the highest daily totals since a revolt against Assad erupted in March 2011.

"In Jordan, a record 2,200 people crossed the border overnight and were received at Zaatari camp in the north," Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva.

ALEPPO FIGHTING

Assad's forceful response to initially peaceful protests inspired by Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere has spawned an armed rebellion and plunged Syria into a civil war that the United Nations says has cost more than 18,000 lives.

The military has been struggling to shore up Assad's grip on Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, which had long stayed aloof from the conflict between a mostly Sunni opposition and a power structure dominated by minority Alawites.

Fighting erupted in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, after rebels staged an offensive there and in Damascus, emboldened by a July 14 bomb attack that killed four of Assad's top aides.

Clashes raged on in Aleppo, where combat jets and helicopter gunships struck rebel-held districts overnight, residents said.

One school used as a base by rebels was bombed twice during the night. "The rebels stay in abandoned police stations and hospitals, but the army knows exactly where they are," said Abu Ahmed, a resident living nearby.

On a frontline in the southern Saif al-Dawla area, rebels destroyed an armored personnel carrier and the army fired tank shells and mortar bombs, but made no attempt to advance.

The body of a civilian named Mohammed Tabraji, 25, lay in the street. His friend Mohammed al-Arabi said they had been looking for a place to buy bread when a sniper shot Tabraji.

In Bustan al-Qasr, not far from the frontline, a 20-year-old student who gave his name as Abdelrahman said his family was too poor to leave the city and hated the idea of fleeing to Turkey.

"If you go as a refugee you won't get any respect," he said. For most people here, self-respect is the most important thing."

SAFE HAVEN

Nonetheless, Syrians in dire straits have been streaming into neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Turkey alone now hosts more than 78,000 Syrian refugees, according to its Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate, a sharp rise on the 44,000 registered there at the end of July.

Ankara, saying it will not be able to accommodate more than 100,000 refugees, has suggested that the United Nations set up a safe haven inside Syria to staunch the outflow.

The chances of gaining a U.N. Security Council mandate for such a safe haven, which would require military protection, are close to zero, given the rejection by veto-wielding powers Russia and China of any outside intervention in Syria.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on France 24 television on Thursday that an "international coalition" of Western nations and allies could consider setting up a limited no-fly zone over part of Syria without such a mandate.

"The scenario mentioned by (U.S. Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton of a particular zone where there could be a banned area is something that needs to be studied," said Le Drian, the first senior French official to air the possibility of action by an "international coalition," rather than the United Nations.

On Tuesday, Russia warned the West against taking any unilateral action in Syria, after President Barack Obama threatened "enormous consequences" if Assad used Syria's chemical or biological weapons.

France chairs a meeting of U.N. Security Council foreign ministers in New York next week which it has said will focus on humanitarian solutions for Syrians caught up in the conflict.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he had invited Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to attend the conference, given the number of refugees and fears of the conflict spreading.

At least three people, including a Sunni Islamist commander, were killed on Friday in a fifth day of Sunni-Alawite fighting in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, where the bloodshed in Syria has aggravated old sectarian tensions.

A Lebanese security source said the Tripoli violence, in which 16 people have been killed this week, was "alarming and dangerous .. It is very likely that it will escalate this time".

(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Aleppo, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, John Irish in Paris and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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