DAMASCUS: The United Nations launched a record $5.2-billion aid appeal for Syria on Friday as regime forces sought to capitalise on recent victories over the rebels, sending reinforcements to battlefields Homs and Aleppo.
The world body, meanwhile, scrambled to find replacement troops for its peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights after heavy fighting between regime forces and rebels near its headquarters on Thursday prompted Austria to announce it was pulling out.
The world body said that the appreal’s record-breaking target includes $3.8 billion needed to help Syrian refugees who have spilled across the country’s borders to escape fighting in their homeland.
The figure for operations inside Syria, meanwhile, was $1.4 billion.
“If the fighting doesn’t stop, we risk an explosion in the Middle East for which the international community is not prepared,” UN refugee agency head Antonio Guterres told reporters.
More than 94,000 people have been killed and some 1.6 million Syrians have fled the country since the civil war began in March 2011 after a crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The number of refugees is expected to reach at least 3.45 million by the end of this year, according to the UN appeal.
Within the country, a total of 6.8 million people are forecast to need aid this year, the majority of them people who have been forced to flee their homes because of the fighting.
Syrian government forces were trying on Friday to mop up final pockets of rebel resistance north of Qusayr, the central town near the border with Lebanon that they retook on Wednesday bolstered by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said the army was bombarding another rebel bastion to the north of Qusayr to which hundreds of wounded and civilians had fled.
“Four rebels were killed on Thursday night trying to evacuate the wounded” in Eastern Bweida, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
He charged that the army was “leaving no way out for rebels, civilians or the wounded” in its campaign to control the whole Qusayr region.
The Observatory also reported that Assad’s forces were sending reinforcements to Aleppo province in northern Syria, where large swathes of territory have been in rebel hands for months.
The army’s preparations for a new offensive in the north came a day after a brief rebel seizure of the Quneitra crossing on the armistice line separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan.
That violence prompted Austria to announce to it was withdrawing from the UN Disengagement Observer Force.
UNDOF peacekeepers from the Philippines and India were wounded by mortar shrapnel in fighting for the strategic crossing, according to UN diplomats.
Manila said it too was considering pulling out its 341-strong contingent.
UN leaders held emergency talks late Thursday to replace the 377 Austrian troops who make up more than a third of UNDOF, which has monitored a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974.
President Vladimir Putin proposed that Russian peacekeepers replace the departing Austrian troops ahead of a meeting of the UN Security Council on the UNDOF crisis on Friday.
“Considering the difficult situation that is developing today in the Golan Heights, we could replace the departing Austrian contingent in this region separating Israeli forces from the Syrian army,” Russian news agencies quoted Putin as saying.
The Kremlin chief stressed that this was only a proposal and that a formal request had to come from the United Nations and be agreed with both Israel and Syria.
Any deployment of Russian troops would be deeply unpopular with the Syrian rebels who have been angered by Moscow’s steadfast support for its ally Damascus.
The Observatory said “fierce fighting continues in Quneitra, including bombardment by regime forces.”
Meanwhile, two journalists working for a French radio channel have gone missing in Syria, with no word from them in 24 hours, their employer Europe 1 said.
French President Francois Hollande called on Friday for Didier Francois, a seasoned reporter in trouble spots, and photographer Edouard Elias “to be freed immediately”.