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New stream of refugees escapes strife in Syria

July 20, 2012 |  7:09 am

BEIRUT -- Escalating violence in Syria has prompted a new surge of refugees fleeing the strife-torn nation, with as many as 30,000 people escaping to neighboring Lebanon in the last 48 hours, the United Nations said Friday.

“With the spread of deadly violence, I am gravely concerned for the thousands of Syrian civilians and refugees who have been forced to flee their homes,” Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva.

Calculations of the numbers of people entering Lebanon from Syria remained imprecise. Between 8,500 and 30,000 arrived in the last 48 hours, the U.N. said.

The refugee agency said it was verifying the numbers and assessing the need of newly arrived Syrians, some of whom crossed “with only the clothes on their backs,” Guterres said.

The new wave of refugees appears to have begun after Wednesday’s reported bombing of a security compound in the Syrian capital. The brazen attack caused the deaths of four top government security officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad, the official Syrian state media said.

On Thursday, Syrian rebels seized several border crossings along the Turkish and Iraqi frontiers.

Reports Friday from the major commercial border crossing at Bab al-Hawa along the Turkish-Syrian frontier indicated that the Syrian frontier post remained in opposition hands. Rebels defaced official photos of Assad and burned Syrian flags, according to amateur video purporting to show the site.

Bab al-Hawa is situated along the main international highway from Turkey to Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub. Traffic at the once-bustling crossing had been reduced to a trickle because of the violence.

But Syrian crossings into Lebanon and Jordan appeared to remain in government hands.

Many people from Syria headed for the Lebanese border post of Masnaa, on the highway that links Damascus, the Syrian capital, with Beirut. Many were fleeing Damascus and environs.

Heavy fighting was reported Friday for the sixth consecutive day in the Syrian capital, where rebels have been battling government troops in fierce urban combat. Opposition activists reported renewed street protests across the nation Friday after traditional Muslim prayers.

More than 200,000 people are believed to have fled Syria to neighboring nations since the rebellion broke out more than 16 months ago. Within Syria, the violence had displaced some 1 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Ironically, before the current civil strife, Syria had provided a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people escaping violence in  neighboring Iraq. Thousands of Iraqi refugees remain inside Syria, some now facing new threats in a country that had served as a safe haven.

In recent days, the U.N. said, many Iraqis fled their homes in the Damascus suburb of Seida Zeinab “due to violence and targeted threats.” Some have taken shelter in schools and parks in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, the U.N. said.

Last week, the U.N. said, an entire Iraqi family of seven was found dead in their apartment in Damascus.  Three other refugees living in Syria were killed by gunfire. There was no word on who was behind the attacks on Iraqis living in Syria or whether they were targeted  for sectarian, political or other reasons.

The Iraqi government has urged its citizens to leave Syria and has organized an airlift to evacuate Iraqi citizens stranded in Syria.


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--Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Syrians carry their belongings Friday as they cross into Lebanon at the border crossing point in Masnaa, eastern Lebanon, about 25 miles from Damascus, Syria. Credit: Associated Press.