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Fierce fighting in Syria swells refugee exodus

Damaged buildings after an exchange of fire between Free Syrian Army fighters and regime forces in the Seif El Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, yesterday.

Damaged buildings after an exchange of fire between Free Syrian Army fighters and regime forces in the Seif El Dawla neighbourhood of Aleppo, yesterday.

Syrian troops forced rebels to abandon a battered Damascus suburb yesterday in the latest battle of an intensifying civil war that the UN refugee agency said had prompted more than 200,000 people to flee the country.

Hundreds of soldiers and dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles pushed into the centre of Daraya after a small group of defenders withdrew, opposition activists said.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had subjected the Sunni Muslim township to a three-day bombardment from artillery, tanks, mortars, rockets and helicopter gunships in which at least 70 people were killed, 21 of them yesterday, they said.

“There are lots of bodies trapped in destroyed buildings, and civilians are trying to flee towards Damascus,” an activist in Daraya, who gave his name as Abu Kinan, told Reuters on the telephone.

“The rebels have mostly slipped away. The fear now is that the army will round up young men and summarily execute them, like it did in Mouadamiya,” he said.

He was referring to a nearby suburb where residents said troops had killed at least 40 people in cold blood this week after storming in to hunt down rebels.

Opposition sources reported a similar killing spree by Mr Assad’s forces in the Qaboun district of Damascus, where they said at least 46 people died.

Syrian authorities restrict media access, making it hard to verify accounts by both sides in the conflict.

More than 90 people were killed across Syria yesterday, including 22 civilians in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said that about 220 had been killed nationwide on Thursday.

The incessant violence has accelerated a refugee exodus, with more than 3,500 Syrians fleeing to Turkey in the past 24 hours in what Turkish officials said was one of the highest daily totals since a revolt against Mr Assad erupted in March 2011.

“In Jordan, a record 2,200 people have crossed the border overnight and were received at Zaatari camp in the north,” Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva.

Mr Assad’s forceful response to initially peaceful protests inspired by Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere has spawned an armed rebellion and plunged Syria into a civil war that the United Nations says has cost more than 18,000 lives.

The military has been struggling to shore up Assad’s grip on Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, which had long stayed aloof from the conflict between a mostly-Sunni opposition and a power structure dominated by minority Alawites.

Fighting erupted in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, after rebels staged an offensive there and in Damascus, emboldened by a July 14 bomb attack that killed four of Assad’s top aides.

Clashes raged on in Aleppo, where combat jets and helicopter gunships struck rebel-held districts overnight, residents said.

One school used as a base by rebels was bombed twice during the night.

“The rebels stay in abandoned police stations and hospitals, but the army knows exactly where they are,” said Abu Ahmed, a resident living nearby.

On a frontline in the southern Saif al-Dawla area, rebels destroyed an armoured personnel carrier and the army fired tank shells and mortar bombs, but made no attempt to advance.

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