GENEVA Flights from Damascus have been cancelled, at least one crossing into Iraq shut, and shells are landing close to the Jordanian border, but more than 246,000 refugees have already fled Syria and the exodus is growing, humanitarian agencies said on Friday.
Seventeen months after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad begun, Syria remains convulsed by serious fighting between government troops and lightly-armed rebel fighters with few signs that either side is close to gaining the upper hand.
The violence, which has killed 20,000 people, has uprooted an estimated 1.2 million people within Syria and prompted tens of thousands to flee the country, according to the United Nations.
"Since the conflict erupted there have been many casualties, and now the situation is rapidly deteriorating even further," said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who met President al-Assad in Damascus earlier this week.
"President al-Assad agreed on the necessity of urgently boosting humanitarian aid by making it easier to bring in goods that would enable us to step up our activities and adequately respond to the needs that have been growing with gathering speed," Maurer added.
The United Nations had estimated it would have to cope with 185,000 refugees by the end of this year, but at over 246,000 the number has far surpassed that already, including 81,000 in Jordan, 78,000 in Turkey, 64,000 in Lebanon and 21,000 in Iraq.
"These numbers do not represent the total, they're simply the number that are registered (or awaiting registration)," Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told a regular U.N. press conference in Geneva on Friday.
Record numbers of refugees are now crossing into Iraq, the UNHCR said, while many Syrians who turned up in Lebanon over the past few months, planning on a short stay "until the fighting stops", have given up hope of a swift return.
"People seem to see themselves being where they are for some time to come," said Edwards.
REFUGEE NUMBERS "THROUGH THE ROOF"
The refugee population in Jordan has raced up since the opening of the Za'atri refugee camp at the end of July. Za'atri has already received 26,000 people and the UNHCR said it was considering opening more camps in Jordan.
Close to 3,000 refugees contacted its office in Damscus with concerns about security, financial difficulties and the need for resettlement, it said.
A record 1,100 refugees crossed into Iraq on Thursday alone, the UNHCR added, even though one border point, at Al-Qaem, was still closed.
The rate of arrivals slowed slightly into Za'atari, as refugees reported bombardment of the Syrian side of the border and limited access to escape routes, the UNHCR said.
In northern Lebanon, 2,400 were registered in the past week, 1,000 more than the previous week, though some refugees reported that the Syrian authorities had only allowed men to cross at some points, forcing women to cross illegally after paying $1,000 to militia on the Syrian side.
"The number of refugees has gone through the roof, beyond anyone's expectations," said Marixie Mercado, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
In addition to the thousands of Syrians fleeing abroad, more than half of them children, tens of thousands of former Iraqi refugees have returned to Iraq to escape the worsening violence.
There are still tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 200,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, including 150,000 in the densely-populated Yarmouk area just outside Damascus.
Residents said shelling had killed at least 20 civilians in Yarmouk earlier this week, and the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA said one of its staff and his medical student son were killed in their home there on Thursday.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis appear to have ground to a halt since the resignation of Kofi Annan as the joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League.
The spokesman for his replacement Lakhdar Brahimi said on Friday that Mokhtar Lamani, a Canadian diplomat, had been appointed as the head of Brahimi's office in Damascus.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)