UN warns of 700,000 refugees fleeing Syria

The forecast for displaced people is almost four times higher than its June prediction where President Bashar Al Assad has responded to rebel military gains with air strikes and artillery bombardment.

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GENEVA // The UN refugee agency warned yesterday there could be as many as 700,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the war-torn nation by the end of the year as it stepped up its call for emergency funding.

The forecast for displaced people is almost four times higher than its June prediction where President Bashar Al Assad has responded to rebel military gains with air strikes and artillery bombardment.

According to UN estimates, 294,000 refugees have crossed into neighbouring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, most of them in the last two months. A majority face what was likely to be a bitterly cold winter living in tents with little prospect of returning.

"This is a significant outflow taking place, 100,000 people in August, 60,000 in September and at the moment 2,000 or 3,000 per day or night," said Panos Moumtzis, regional refugee coordinator for the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Donors have given US$141.5 million (Dh 517.9m) toward humanitarian assistance, less than a third of the $490m requested.

About 95,000 Syrians have found refuge in Jordan, followed by almost 88,000 in Turkey and 78,000 in Lebanon. About 33,000 Syrians have fled to Iraq, which recently reopened its border crossing at Al Qaim, according to the UNHCR.

World leaders meeting at the UN have expressed concern at the violence but are deadlocked over a response. Western powers have shied away from supplying military aid to rebels who include foreign extremists and there is little chance of securing a Security Council mandate given the opposition of veto-wielding members Russia and China.

As fighting raged in Syria yesterday, unknown attackers blew up an oil pipeline in the north-east province of Hasaka, the main oil producing region in the country. Oil production has been cut in half from pre-revolt levels of 420,000 barrels a day.

Several thousand Syrian rebels yesterday also launched what they said would be a decisive battle for control of the strategic northern city of Aleppo. "Tonight, Aleppo will be ours or we will be defeated," Abu Furat, a rebel commander, said.

In response, the regime sent text messages with a message for rebels fighting Mr Assad's regime stating: "Game Over." Texts appear to be part of the regime's psychological battle against the rebels.

At least 59 people were killed nationwide, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported yesterday.

Also yesterday a second Islamist militant group claimed responsibility for Wednesday's assault on a Syrian army headquarters in Damascus. Al Nusra Front said it was behind the attack on the facility.

* Reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press