MORE than 10,000 Syrians fled the country in a 24-hour period after rebels seized a key border town, as the United Nations warned that up to four million people could be left in need of humanitarian aid as a result of the civil war.
Figures from the UN showed that 11,000 refugees had fled in 24 hours from Thursday – most to Turkey. The exodus is testing the patience of the country, which is the most militarily capable of Syria’s neighbours and a strong opponent of its leader Bashar al-Assad. Ankara has long said a full-blown refugee emergency would demand robust intervention.
Some of the refugees desperately clambered over razor-wire border fences to reach safety, fleeing one of the heaviest battlegrounds – the town of Ras al-Ayn, where rebels seized security compounds of the regime’s most powerful intelligence agencies. Government forces pounded rebels with shelling in return.
The flood of people was “the highest that we have had in quite some time,” said Panos Moumtzis, the UN refugee agency’s regional co-ordinator.
The escalation – much more than the average 2,000 to 3,000 Syrians fleeing daily – brings the number of Syrian refugees registered with the agency to more than 408,000, he said.
Even as the turmoil worsened, president Assad said he had no regrets over his regime’s crackdown in the 19-month-old uprising against his rule.
In an interview with Russian television, he said there was no civil war in Syria, insisting that he was protecting Syrians against “terrorism” supported from abroad.
Syria’s conflict began largely as peaceful protests against Mr Assad’s rule, but it has since collapsed into civil war after rebels took up arms in response to the regime’s bloody crackdown.
Rebels have driven regime forces out of much of a pocket of north-western Syria and battle troops in several large cities and in towns around the country, even as the fight takes on dangerous sectarian tones between a mainly Sunni opposition and a regime dominated by Mr Assad’s minority Allawite sect.
More than 36,000 people have been killed in the violence since March 2011, according to activists.
During the 24-hour flood of refugees that began on Thursday, 9,000 Syrians fled into Turkey, including 70 who were wounded and two who then died. Jordan and Lebanon each absorbed another 1,000 refugees.
The largest flow into Turkey came from the fighting at Ras al-Ayn in the predominantly Kurdish north-eastern province of al-Hasaka. The town hugs the border, practically adjacent to the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.
On Thursday, rebels captured a border crossing between the two towns, Ceylanpinar’s mayor, Ismail Aslan, said.
The next day, rebels overran three security compounds in the town belonging to the Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and General Intelligence Directorate agencies, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group.
More than 20 soldiers were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.
Regime forces shelled rebel positions yesterday, Ceylanpinar’s mayor said. Regime tanks were also moving into the area to join the fight, according to another opposition activist group, the Local Co-ordination Committees.
Turkey’s Anadolu Agency video footage showed Syrians jumping over and climbing through the razor-wire fence that makes up part of the 566-mile border, to cross into Ceylanpinar.
Others fled into Turkey further west along the border, trying to escape fighting at the Syrian town of Harem in Idlib province, which has been the scene of intensified battles in recent days.
The new arrivals bring the number of refugees in Turkey to around 120,000.
Meanwhile, Turkish state-run news said a group of Syrian soldiers, including two generals and 11 colonels, had fled to Turkey with their families and were taken to a camp that shelters military defectors, including dozens of other generals.
In fighting elsewhere yesterday, at least 18 people, including children, were killed when government troops shelled the eastern village of Qouriyeh, the Observatory and the LCC said.
An amateur video showed what appeared to be men, women and children, some of them with gaping wounds lying in a street in what appeared to be a local market.
A car bomb near the mayor’s office in the capital, in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh killed at least four people, the Observatory said.