Posted at: 03/06/2013 9:09 AM
By BARBARA SURK and DAVID RISING
UN agency: Syrian refugee figure hits 1 million
(AP) BEIRUT - The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country and are seeking assistance has now topped the 1 million mark, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday, warning that Syria is heading toward a "full-scale disaster."
The announcement came as government troops and rebels fought street battles in Syria’s strategic northern city of Raqqa. The Syrian military dispatched reinforcements in an attempt to push out opposition gunmen who now control most of the city, activists said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said in Geneva that the 1 million figure is based on reports from his agency’s field offices in countries neighboring Syria that have provided safe haven for refugees escaping the civil war.
"With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling toward full-scale disaster," Guterres said. Syria’s population is about 22 million.
In addition, several hundred thousand Syrians who have fled their country have not yet registered as refugees, suggesting the total number well exceeds 1 million, said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
Also Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country will provide armored vehicles, body armor and search-and-rescue equipment to Syria’s opposition.
Britain is broadening its technical assistance as a "necessary, proportionate and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering," he told the House of Commons.
He said Britain is sticking to the current EU sanctions against Syria, which include an arms embargo that also prevents sending weapons to rebels fighting President Bashar Assad.
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s authoritarian rule. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, the opposition took up arms and the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. The U.N. estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.
The pace of refugees fleeing the battered country has picked up dramatically over the past three months.
In Lebanon, 19-year-old Bushra, a mother of two, became the millionth Syrian refugee registered in the region since the conflict began. Since fleeing the fighting in central city of Homs a few weeks ago, Bushra has lived in the Lebanon’s restive city of Tripoli, squeezed into a room with 20 other people.
"Our life conditions are very bad, it is very expensive here (in Lebanon) and we cannot find any work," Bushra, who asked to be identified with her first name for fear of government reprisals, told reporters at a UNHCR registration center in Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
The U.N. refugee agency has registered more than 300,000 Syrians in Lebanon, although its representatives say many more Syrians are living in the country in dire need of basic aid.
Guterres said the number of refugees has swelled dramatically this year, with most pouring into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
More than 400,000 people have become refugees since Jan. 1, and often arrive in neighboring countries "traumatized, without possessions and having lost members of their families," he said.
Around half are children, the majority under age 11.
"We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched," he said. "This tragedy has to be stopped."
In Beirut, Panos Moumtzis, the UNHCR regional coordinator for Syrian refugees, said that 7,000 Syrians have been crossing into neighboring countries every day since the fighting escalated in December.
This has stretched the resources of states like Lebanon and Jordan and has made the refugee crisis one of the fastest deteriorating situations in decades, he said.
"When you stand at the border crossing, you see this human river flowing in, day and night," Moumtzis told The Associated Press after inspecting UNHCR’s registration centers at border crossings in Lebanon.
He said the U.N. refugee agency badly needs money to help host countries cope and manage the refugee population, adding that of the $1 billion for aiding Syrian refugees in neighboring countries that was pledged at the Kuwait donor conference in January, only $200 million has come through.
"We are getting desperate," Moumtzis said, adding that the agency is able to provide Syrians fleeing violence with a bare minimum: a tent, a blanket, a sleeping mat, 2,000 calories of food and 20 liters of water a day.
"We are going hand to mouth, constantly trying to catch up in a crisis that is complex and dangerous because it has a potential to turn into a regional conflict," Moumtzis said.
Fighting raged Wednesday in several parts of the country, especially the north.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said Syrian warplanes bombarded rebel-held areas in Raqqa as the fighting intensified around the Military Intelligence headquarters in the city.
Rebels captured most of the city Monday, tearing down a giant statue of Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, as well as posters of the leader. The rebels are battling pockets of government troops in Raqqa, a city of 500,000 people on the Euphrates River, activists said.
Syria’s pro-government daily Al-Watan said "terrorists" _ a term the regime uses for rebels _ have occupied several government buildings in the city. It also confirmed reports that that the rebels captured Raqqa’s governor, Hassan Jalali, and the head of the ruling Baath party’s branch, Salman al-Salman.
Huge military reinforcements have reached the outskirts of Raqqa and "are preparing to enter the city to liberate it and restore security and stability," the newspaper reported.
The Observatory said army reinforcements coming from the nearby town of Tabqa, also known as Thawra, clashed with rebels on the way to Raqqa. It said rebels are holding 300 soldiers and pro-government militiamen who were captured in the recent fighting.
It also reported that regime forces are attacking several neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, which the rebels have held for more than a year.
Rising reported from Berlin. Associated Press writers Robert H. Reid in Berlin, Albert Aji in Damascus and Bassem Mroue and Karin Laub in Beirut contributed to this story.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)