More than a million need aid in Syria

As refugees stream across the border, Jordan issues appeal for international assistance

At least 1.5 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance in Syria, aid agencies said yesterday – evidence that the impact of what is now a civil war goes far beyond the probable 10,000 dead reported since the insurgency and protests began.

More and more civilians are fleeing their homes on a daily basis to escape the fighting, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that those caught in the violence find getting medical treatment, and basic food items, increasingly difficult.

An ICRC report stated: "The situation in many parts of Syria is very tense... The number of displaced people has been growing day by day. Many of the displaced have seen their assets looted or destroyed. Many are staying with family members or friends, others in public structures,[which often] lack basic services such as water and electricity."

The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the only international aid agencies with access to many affected areas, have delivered aid to around 300,000-400,000 people since June last year. Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, said on Friday that "200,000-400,000" people had been displaced internally. The ICRC spokesman, Hicham Hassan, said many of the displaced were staying in schools, mosques and churches, and much of the infrastructure needed urgent repairs.

Satellite images obtained by the BBC on Friday showing a dried-up reservoir and water canal 2kms south-west of Homs, and amateur video footage of shrapnel-damaged roof-top water tanks, suggest a campaign of sabotage has accompanied the violence.

With about 95,000 Syrian refugees having found their way to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the humanitarian crisis could easily spread to other countries in the region. The largest number are in Jordan, and that country is now appealing for assistance.

The past 36 hours have seen shelling in the southern city of Daraa, which has killed at least 15 people, and, in Damascus, a night of shooting and explosions, described by residents as the worst so far in the capital. Government troops clashed with rebels from the Free Syrian Army in Damascus's Kfar Souseh district – a clear sign that the ragtag group has succeeded in taking its fight to the regime's powerbase. Until now, Damascus had been relatively quiet.

Maath al-Shami, a Damascus resident and activist, said via Skype: "Yesterday was a turning point in the conflict. There were clashes in Damascus that lasted hours." He added that troops shelled the city's Qaboun and Barzeh districts from tanks until after midnight on Friday, and that at least four people had been killed. The tanks reportedly withdrew before sunrise on Saturday, and the area then became relatively quiet.

The nearly 12 hours of fighting in the capital suggests a new boldness among armed rebels, who previously have kept a low profile there. It also showed a willingness by the regime to unleash the sort of elevated force against restive areas which it has used to crush opponents elsewhere. For the first time in the uprising, witnesses said regime tanks opened fire in the city's streets, with shells slamming into residential buildings.

The latest escalations in different parts of Syria are another blow to the peace plan devised by the international envoy, Kofi Annan. Mr Annan brokered a ceasefire that supposedly came into effect on 12 April, but which in reality has been violated nearly every day since then. Yesterday, UN observers, who are in the country ostensibly to monitor the ceasefire, issued the first independent video images from the scene of a reported massacre last week in a remote farming village. Activists say up to 78 people, including women and children, were shot, hacked or burned to death in Mazraat al-Qubair. The video, taken during the UN visit a day earlier, showed blood splashed on a wall pockmarked with bullet holes and soaking a nearby mattress.

After the observers' visit, the UN spokeswoman, Sausan Ghosheh, said there was evidence of a "horrific crime", and the team could smell the stench of burned corpses and see body parts strewn around the now deserted village. She said residents' accounts were "conflicting", and the team was still cross-checking the names of the missing and dead with those supplied by nearby villagers. Opposition activists and Syrian government officials blamed each other for the killings.

World opinion seems to be having little effect so far on the brew of sectarian animosities that complicate the struggle against President Bashar Assad's repressive regime.

Who are the 'shabiha'? The pro-Assad militia blamed for the worst atrocities

Today's feared death squads came from humble beginnings as a smuggling and blackmail racket, set up by President Assad's relatives in the coastal city of Latakia. The present armed insurgency against 42 years of family rule by Bashar al-Assad and his late father pits a Sunni-led protest movement against a ruling elite from the country's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. As Mr Assad increasingly turned to his relatives to strengthen his grip on the country after inheriting power in 2000, the shabiha began appearing in Latakia and the nearby mountains.

Cousins of Mr Assad drove blacked-out Mercedes S-class cars, nicknamed "shabbah" – ghosts – forcing their way through traffic with an arsenal of rifles aboard. The name caught on and was adopted by the gunmen to describe themselves as they expanded. After the uprising, they swiftly developed with state support into a fully fledged militia. Directed by the security forces or ruling Baath party officials, they put down demonstrations in cities across the country, often by shooting demonstrators dead. At pro-government rallies in Damascus and other cities earlier this year, shabiha members carried banners that read: "Assad: We are your shabiha for ever," and "Assad: Your name is etched on our AK-47s."

At the beginning of the revolt, security forces recruited thousands of Sunni Muslims to reinforce the shabiha's Alawite core, especially after Mr Assad released thousands from jail in a general amnesty last year. The shabiha, however, became more dependent on recruitment from the Alawite community as the revolt became more militarised and rebels began targeting government forces The massacres – and the increasing risk of being assassinated by rebels – have also put off many Sunnis, although their pay at one point reached $100 a day, a fortune in a country where average salaries are $200 to $300 a month.

Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition activist who fled Syria last year, said: "The shabiha are driven by a feeling of impunity – that they can kill as many Sunnis as they can while Russia's support for the regime removes any possibility of international intervention." But the militia is taking hits. Lack of Sunni support has all but forced it out of the city of Deir al-Zor, where it helped to put down demonstrations against Mr Assad last year.

However, in the Sunni city of Hama, just 12 miles east of the location where activists reported a massacre on Wednesday, a force of about 3,000 shabiha remains in position. Reuters

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Infrastructure Lead, (Trading, VCE, Converged, Hyper V)

£600 - £900 per day: Harrington Starr: Infrastructure Lead, (Trading infrastru...

Software Solution Technician - Peterborough - up to £21,000

£20000 - £21000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Solutio...

Supply teachers needed- Worthing!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Supply teachers needed for va...

Year 4 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 4 Primary Teachers needed Rand...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering