News Column

Syrian Refugees Now One Million, Says UN

March 6, 2013

One million Syrians have fled their worn-torn country since fighting erupted nearly two years ago, the United Nations said Wednesday.

With "thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.

The Syrian exodus outpaced a December forecast by the UN that said it would take until the end of June for the number to reach 1.1 million.

Neighbouring countries were stretched to the limit in trying to cope with the arrivals and should be "massively supported" by other governments, Guterres said in Geneva.

He added that Lebanon's population had risen 10 per cent as a result, and that Turkey had spent more than 600 million dollars on refugee camps.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament that the conflict had reached "catastrophic proportions" and said the country would provide Syrian rebels with armoured vehicles and body armour.

London also committed 20 million pounds (30 million dollars) to providing non-lethal equipment and training for opposition forces.

Britain has lobbied for the European Union's embargo on arms supplies to Syrian rebels be lifted, but the bloc last week extended the ban for a further three months.

The assistance was announced shortly after a Syrian rebel chief urged the West to arm the opposition forces.

"We need weapons and ammunition to stop the killing, to defend ourselves and to defend our citizens," Free Syrian Army (FSA) General Salim Idriss told EU parliamentarians in Brussels.

"The people ... don't understand why the international community just looks at the news in the TV, they just speak in the media and say that it's not good, the regime must stop, Bashar (al-Assad) must go, and they don't act," he added.

Idriss warned that the radical Islamist group al-Nusra Front will grow stronger if the conflict in Syria is drawn out and FSA rebels do not get international assistance.

The front is attracting fighters because they are receiving "support" and have "financial wherewithal," Idriss noted.

The group is not part of the FSA and there is no combat planning taking place between the two, according to Idriss.

In Cairo, Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi called on the Syrian government to respond to an offer from the opposition leader to negotiate an end to the country's conflict.

"Missing this chance to reach an agreement on steps for a solution will have grave consequences for Syria ... and the whole region," al-Arabi told a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

Opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib has offered to hold talks with officials from al-Assad's regime with no blood on their hands.

Arab League foreign ministers were discussing Wednesday a Qatari suggestion to hand over Syria's seat at the pan-Arab organization to al-Khatib's coalition.

However, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour called on the League to reinstate Syria, whose membership was suspended at the organization in November 2011 over the opposition crackdown.

"Communication with Syria ... is very essential to reach a political solution," said Mansour.

The move by Mansour, who is linked to the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, a close ally of Damascus, prompted Lebanese Prime Minister Nagib Mikati to reiterate that his country is still abiding "by the disassociation policy" on Syria's crisis.

Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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