UN: Syria refugee numbers jump 10 percent in week
By KARIN LAUB
BEIRUT (AP) -- The number of registered Syrian refugees jumped 10 percent in just one week to more than 1.1 million, a U.N. aid official said Thursday as France pushed for an urgent lifting of a European Union ban on arming opposition fighters.
Fighting in Syria has escalated in recent months, with the regime stepping up attacks on rebel strongholds. The U.N. refugee agency said the number of Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries has risen to 8,000 a day from 3,000 in December.
The regime is increasingly using indiscriminate, lethal battlefield weapons, including widely banned cluster bombs, in attacks on residential areas, the human rights groups Amnesty International said in a report Thursday.
"The frequency and scale of such attacks -- which constitute war crimes -- has increased in recent months, with disastrous consequences for the civilian population," the group said.
With no end in sight to the 2-year-old conflict, France and Britain are pushing for a review of the EU's ban on sending weapons to Syria's opposition fighters.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that France and Britain will ask for an EU meeting to lift the embargo "now," possibly by the end of the month.
"Lifting the embargo is one of the only means left to make things move politically" in Syria, Fabius said, adding that he believes France should arm the rebels.
Asked by France-Info radio if France and Britain could join efforts to arm the opposition, Fabius said, "to lift the embargo, exactly."
Russia, which is supplying weapons to the Syrian military, strongly opposes arms supplies to the rebels, and some international diplomats warn that more fire power is the last thing that Syria needs after fighting has already left a 70,000 dead, according to the U.N.
The current embargo expires in May. If EU partners don't agree on lifting it, Fabius said France and Britain could refuse to renew it. British Prime Minister David Cameron hinted this week that the U.K. might withhold approval for an extension.
The Syria conflict began as a largely peaceful uprising against the regime. A government crackdown triggered an armed insurgency that turned into a civil war last summer.
U.N. officials said some 4 million of Syria's 22 million people have been forced from their homes by the fighting, including 2 million who remain in Syria.
The U.N. said the number of Syrians who fled to neighboring countries is growing well beyond initial estimates. It said donor governments have sent only about one-fifth of the $1.5 billion needed to help displaced Syrians for the first six months of this year.
Last week, the U.N. announced that the number of registered refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and North Africa had reached 1 million.
On Thursday, Reem Alsalem, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said more than 121,000 refugees have registered since then, a jump of more than 10 percent. Syrians are fleeing their country "at a rate faster than anyone anticipated," she said.
In addition to the growing exodus, registration has accelerated, including in Turkey where more refugees living outside the country's 17 camps have been signed up, she said. Aid officials estimate that hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled their country have not registered with the U.N.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres visited the Jordanian border with Syria late Wednesday and spoke to some of the refugees who had just crossed.
"There is horror from the endless conflict. Night after night, women, children, elderly people are crossing the border fleeing their country. Their country, in many aspects, is falling apart," he said.
Guterres said the international funding was far off from what was "necessary, far from the magnitude of this drama."
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