Damascus: One million Syrians have fled their homeland since a revolt erupted two years ago, the UN said on Wednesday, as monitors said regime warplanes struck rebel enclaves in flashpoints across the country.
“With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned.
“We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched. This tragedy has to be stopped,” he said in a statement issued in Geneva.
Only a year ago, the UN agency had only registered 33,000 refugees. The exodus has intensified this year, the UNHCR said, with 400,000 Syrians fleeing their country since January 1, mostly to the country’s neighbours.
Guterres’s announcement came as the UN emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, said four million people in Syria need more than $1.4 billion in aid over the next four months.
On the battlefront, an air raid in the northern city of Raqa killed and wounded dozens of people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The strikes came two days after rebels overran most of the strategic capital of Raqa province in what was touted as their biggest victory since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011.
“Dozens of people were killed or wounded in air strikes in Raqa city that targeted the areas around security and government buildings” that the rebels seized during their advance, said the Britain-based watchdog.
Fighter jets also bombarded Homs in the centre, on the fourth day of a major offensive aimed at crushing the insurgency in the country’s third-largest city, said the Observatory.
Near Damascus, the air force bombarded several rebel enclaves in the Eastern Ghouta area, including the battered town of Douma, a rebel stronghold, said the watchdog which relies on a vast network of activists and medics on the ground.
The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising.
On a visit to the European Parliament in Brussels, the chief of staff of Syria’s rebel army said Assad’s regime could be toppled “within a month” if Western nations agreed to arm the insurgency.
“What we have now is little, very very little,” said the Free Syrian Army chief, Brigadier General Selim Idriss. “If we have the weapons we need, we can bring down the regime in a month.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, said London will provide body armour and armoured vehicles to the rebels, as part of a “non-lethal” package of aid worth $20 million.
“The fact remains that diplomacy is taking far too long and the prospect of an immediate breakthrough is slim,” he told parliament in London.
The British announcement comes after the European Union last Thursday authorised the supply of non-lethal military equipment and training to Assad’s foes.
On the diplomatic front, the foreign ministry in Moscow said Russia’s pointman on Syria would meet his US counterpart and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in London on Thursday to discuss the conflict.
“There is an understanding in principle for Mr (Mikhail) Bogdanov to meet in London … with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns” and Brahimi, foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
Russia is upset with a US decision to also step up its non-military support for the armed rebels, and it opposes calls for Assad to step down before a launch of dialogue between the regime and opposition.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, in comments aired on Wednesday, said that “a lot of countries” are training Syrian rebels as part of stepped up efforts to topple Assad.
“It’s one part of it. But other nations are doing other things. There are a lot of nations working at this. And so I think President Assad needs to read the tea leaves correctly,” Kerry told Fox News.