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Jordan seeing record refugee numbers

Syria's army unleashed a barrage of rocket and artillery fire on rebel-held areas in a central province Friday as part of a widening offensive against fighters seeking to oust President Bashar Assad. At least 140 people were killed in fighting nationwide, according to activist groups.

The United Nations said a record number of Syrians streamed into Jordan this month, doubling the population of the kingdom's already-cramped refugee camp to 65,000. Over 30,000 people arrived in Zaatari in January — 6,000 in the past two days alone, the U.N. said.

The newcomers are mostly families, women, children and elderly who fled from southern Syria, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She said the UNHCR was working with the Jordanian government to open a second major camp nearby by the end of this month.

Many of the new arrivals at Zaatari are from the southern town of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad first erupted nearly two years ago, the Britain-based Save the Children said Friday.

Five buses, crammed with "frightened and exhausted people who fled with what little they could carry," pull up every hour at the camp, said Saba al-Mobasat, an aid worker with Save the Children.

The exodus reflected the latest spike in violence in Syria's civil war. The conflict began in March 2011 after a peaceful uprising against Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, turned violent.

Despite significant rebel advances on the battlefield, the opposition remains outgunned by government forces and has been unable to break a stalemate on the ground.

In Lebanon, the leader of the Syria-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Friday in a speech that those who dream about "dramatic changes" taking place in Syria should let go of their fantasies.

"Particularly those who were expecting the fall of Damascus," he told supporters, adding that military, political and international developments point to the futility of such dreams.

Activists said the army recently brought in military reinforcements to the central province of Homs and launched a renewed offensive aimed at retaking patches of territory that have been held by rebels for months.

An amateur video posted online by activists showed rockets slamming into buildings in the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the provincial capital, Homs. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.

Another video showed thick black and grey smoke rising from a building in the besieged city. "The city of Homs is burning ... day and night, the shelling of Homs doesn't stop," the narrator is heard saying.

Troops also battled rebels around Damascus in an effort to dislodge opposition fighters who have set up enclaves in surrounding towns and villages. The troops fired artillery shells Friday at several districts, including Zabadani and Daraya, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime warplanes carried out airstrikes on the suburb of Douma, the largest patch of rebel-held ground near Damascus.

Other video showed devastation in the Damascus neighbourhood of Arbeen, following what activists said were two airstrikes there. A bleeding, wounded man can be seen being helped out of the rubble of the destroyed building. The videos appeared consistent with Associated Press reporting on the fighting.

The Canadian Press


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