QAA, LEBANON—More than a thousand Syrian refugees have poured across the border into Lebanon, among them families with small children carrying only plastic bags filled with their belongings as they fled a regime hunting down its opponents.
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The UN refugee agency said Monday that as many as 2,000 Syrians had crossed into Lebanon in the last two days. Associated Press reporters in one border village saw families crossing with only a few possessions.
“We fled the shelling and the strikes,” said Hassana Abu Firas in Qaa in northeast Lebanon. She came with two families who had fled government shelling of their town al-Qusair, about 22 kilometres away on the other side of the Syrian border.
The town is in Homs province, an opposition stronghold where the government has been waging a brutal offensive for the past month. The province borders Lebanon.
“What are we supposed to do? People are sitting in their homes and they are hitting us with tanks. Those who can flee, do. Those who can't will die sitting down,” she said.
Homs, the provincial capital and Syria's third-largest city with one million residents, has emerged as a central battleground in the year-old uprising to oust authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
Activists say hundreds have been killed in the month-long Homs offensive and the UN recently put the death toll for a year of violence in Syria at 7,500. However, activists group say the toll has already surpassed 8,000.
The crackdown in Homs also killed an American reporter and a French photographer who sneaked into the country and filed their final reports shedding light on the horrors of life under assault and the quickly swelling humanitarian catastrophe in the city.
During the Homs offensive, international condemnation of the Assad regime grew more intense by the day. The U.S. has called for him to step down, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said he could be considered a war criminal. The European Union said it would document alleged war crimes in Syria to set the stage for a “day of reckoning” for the country's leadership, in the way that former Yugoslav leaders were tried for war crimes in the 1990s by a UN tribunal.
With international pressure at a peak in the boiling crisis, the Syrian regime said it would allow the entry of two prominent international envoys it has previously rebuffed, said Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will visit Syria on March 10 as the joint UN-Arab League envoy, Elaraby said. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos will also be allowed to visit.
In what the U.S. criticized as foot-dragging, Syria previously did not respond to Amos's requests for a visa. It also said it needed more information on the nature of Annan's visit.
In Homs, the Red Cross said it had received permission to enter Baba Amr, the city's hardest hit district, on Monday. Baba Amr had been held by rebels for several months before regime forces drove them out on Thursday. The relief workers have not yet gone in.
The Red Cross has been distributing aid around other parts of Homs for the past two days, but the regime has blocked it from entering Baba Amr since relief workers arrived in the area on Friday. Activists alleged that after the Syrian forces seized back control of Baba Amr, they killed dozens of residents execution-style and burned homes in revenge attacks against those believed to be supporting the rebels.
The Syrian government claims it has been blocking access to Baba Amr out of security concerns.
As the neighbourhood remained cut off, concerns mounted over the desperate plight of civilians facing severe cold and hunger, and the reported revenge attacks.
Homs activist Mulham al-Jundi accused Syrian forces of keeping aid teams out of Baba Amr to hide their activities there. He said he heard a few explosions in the neighbourhood and saw columns of smoke there from a rooftop elsewhere in the city.
“We have heard explosions in Baba Amr, so it seems that they are destroying some of the houses and important centres there,” he said via Skype.
The head of the Syrian Red Crescent in Homs province, Shueib Shaaban, said aid teams would enter part of the area Monday. Shaaban said authorities said the group could enter all of Baba Amr on Tuesday and that the group was sending three trucks with aid for the neighbourhood.
The Red Cross has said the greatest needs are food, medical supplies and blankets, due to frigid temperatures and snowfall.
The violence in Homs sent many families fleeing into nearby neighbourhoods and villages, and the Red Cross distributed milk powder, medicine, food and blankets on Sunday to some 400 displaced families in the Abel village south of the city, Shaaban said. That aid continued Monday.
Violence across Syria has sent more than 100,000 people fleeing into neighbouring countries. Turkey says it hosts more than 11,000 Syrians in camps along the Turkey-Syria border, including more than 1,000 who crossed in the last month. About 100 have crossed in the last two days.
Jordan has more than 80,000, according to government spokesman Rakan al-Majali.
Lebanese security officials say more than 10,000 Syrians are believed to be in the country. One official said as many as 3,000 are believed to have crossed in recent days because violence in Homs province, though it is unclear how many have returned to Syria.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under government protocol.
Inside Lebanon, many Syrians fear agents from their own country's security services. Stories have circulated of kidnappings and collaboration between Lebanese and Syrian security forces.
Syria blames the uprising on Islamist extremists and armed gangs seeking to destabilize the country. Syrian state TV showed municipal workers sweeping the streets in Homs and clearing barricades and ruins — part of what it called a long process of repairing infrastructure damaged by armed groups.
Though the crisis in Syria has left Assad increasingly isolated internationally, he still can count on a few powerful allies.
Russia and China have stood by stood by Assad, rejecting all forms of interference in Syria's affairs and protecting Syria from condemnation by the UN Security Council. Both countries fear such a move could pave the way for military intervention against Assad, as it did against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Syria on Monday lauded the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, saying his “strong man” status would reshape international relations.
Also Monday, China said it would send its former ambassador to Syria to try to convince the Assad regime of the need for a cease-fire, and to emphasize its opposition to outside intervention.
Li Huaqing will visit Damascus on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry said.
China's own proposal for ending the Syria conflict calls for an immediate an immediate cease-fire and talks by all parties.