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Middle East

Assad push on Syrian rebels sets off exodus of refugees

Thousands flee to neighbouring Lebanon as regime cracks down ahead of ceasefire

President Bashar al-Assad's army yesterday appeared to widen its merciless campaign to crush dissent ahead of a ceasefire deadline, bolstering the flow of refugees into neighbouring countries that are struggling to deal with the influx of new arrivals.

Columns of smoke rose above the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Saqba yesterday where tank shells and snipers were said to be targeting anything that moved, while intense clashes between the Free Syrian Army fighters and the regime's army took place in nearby Harasta.

Similar brutality was reported elsewhere in the country as the security forces tried to disperse thousands who defiantly took to the streets after Friday prayers.

Amid the crackdown, the United Nations yesterday sharply increased its figures for the number of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Lebanon, revising the total estimate to over 20,000 – an increase of 5,000 on a week ago.

The refugee agency said this was largely due to a lag in data collection, but aid workers said that an upsurge in violence in cities near the Lebanese border, such as war-scarred Homs, has caused an influx of refugees over the past week, and that numbers fleeing the fighting are much higher than even the revised official projections.

"With an increase in the bombardment of Homs in the past three days our figures have now exceeded 27,000 refugees," said Hassan Al Sabeh, country director for Islamic Relief, which is providing aid to those fleeing. "We're getting new cases in continually – 34 families just came across the border in the past half an hour."

In the village of Jdeideh, nine miles from the Syrian border in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, local organisers say there are now 550 refugees in the village, with more than 100 arriving in the past month. Those who can't afford rent shelter in agricultural outbuildings.

Most families in the town arrive from Homs, where explosions and gunfire could be heard in several neighbourhoods yesterday and the Local Co-ordination Committees reported 15 killed, out of a total of 21 across the country.

Mr Assad has been accused of stepping up his campaign of violence in an attempt to weaken the opposition ahead of a ceasefire due to start on 10 April, brokered by Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the UN.

Unlike in Turkey and Jordan, no refugee camps have been established for Syrians in Lebanon.

Abu Ahmed, his wife and four children are among an extended family of 30 living in a four-bedroom house on the outskirts of Jdeideh. He says his family has received no help from international aid organisations since arriving a month and a half ago from the town of Al Qusayr.

"We have no work but have to pay rent and feed the 23 children we have in this house," said the 44-year-old who was a lorry driver back in Syria. "All we want to do is go home but at night when the wind is blowing in the right direction you can hear the shells falling on our hometown from here. When will this madness stop?"

A coalition of 30 Islamic charities earlier in the week threatened to establish refugee camps if the government won't act on the burgeoning refugee crisis. The Lebanese political scene is divided over Syria, split between supporters of the Assad regime, led by Hezbollah, and the pro-Western March 14 movement.

Hezbollah has opposed any camps being opened, saying they will be used as a base to launch attacks on the Syrian government and in turn within Lebanon itself. Aid officials say that camps are generally a last resort but local communities are desperately in need of assistance.

"The experience tends to be less traumatic if refugees are hosted in communities," said one international aid organisation official. "The government has experience of the Palestinian camps, where weapons are rife, and there is a clear red line on camps. That's not a problem as long as the host communities can host. The problem we are starting to see is they are reaching saturation point."

Sheikh Mohammed al Baizi, the imam of the Aisha mosque in Lebanon's second city of Tripoli, said his community is struggling to assist families arriving from Syria in need. His mosque is providing support for 223 families, who he says receive no aid from elsewhere.

"We used to run a lot of activities in the local community for women and children but now all we can do is concentrate on the refugees, and it's too much for us to do alone," he said.