Up to 700,000 refugees may flee Syria by the end of the year, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, escaping a conflict which is killing hundreds every day and dividing world powers meeting at the United Nations.
The UNHCR forecast is almost four times higher than its June prediction, reflecting spiralling violence as President Bashar al-Assad has responded to rebel military gains with air strikes and artillery bombardment.
Activists said more than 300 people were killed in Syria on Wednesday including dozens in a town southeast of Damascus where they accused Assad's forces of committing a massacre. Rebels also bombed the military staff headquarters in the capital.
Around 294,000 refugees escaping 18 months of conflict have crossed into neighbouring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, most in the last two months.
"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," Panos Moumtzis, Regional Refugee Co-ordinator for UNHCR, said in Geneva.
The flow of refugees surged in August when Assad deployed jets and helicopters to strike rebel-held towns in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, sending thousands across the border with Turkey. Heavy military clashes with rebels in Deraa in the south also drove many Syrians into neighbouring Jordan.
UN aid agencies and humanitarian partners issued a funding appeal yesterday for US$488 million to try to help meet the needs of refugees from Syria.
Since the uprising against Assad erupted in March last year, more than 30,000 people have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said this week. It said more than 7,000 of those were soldiers and members of the security forces.
Wednesday's death toll of over 300 - reported by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition Local Co-ordination Committees - made it one of the bloodiest of the 18-month-old uprising.
The UN says many more have been displaced and that 2.5 million people in the country need aid and assistance.
World leaders meeting at the UN have expressed concern at the continuing violence but are deadlocked over their response to the conflict, which pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad, who is from an Alawite minority close to Shiite Islam.