Friday, February 23, 2018

Wounded Syrians flee into Jordan

RAMTHA, Jordan — Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan for their lives described a dramatic escalation in violence and a mounting toll of dead and wounded in the southern city of Daraa and the country's battered central region.

Medical workers in neighboring Jordan prepared blood donations to send to Daraa, the city where the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted nearly a year ago, as the regime struggled to extinguish major pockets of dissent with intensive shelling.

The fighting in Homs, coupled with fresh violence in Daraa, has triggered a new wave of wounded refugees crossing into Jordan.

Mohamed Ahmed Iyad of the Jordanian aid group Kitab and Sunna, which provides aid to some 10,000 Syrians in Jordan, said his group was preparing blood bags and other medical supplies to send to Daraa.

In the past two days alone, 170 families — around 850 people — have fled to Ramtha, just seven miles from the Syrian border, Iyad said.

Backers of an Arab League peace plan for Syria said Friday that they were seeking new ways to aid opponents of Assad and to ensure that an international conference in Tunisia next week puts additional pressure on him to give up power.

The diplomatic momentum, seen in high-level meetings in Washington and Paris, came as thousands of anti-Assad Syrians, perhaps also emboldened by news of the General Assembly resolution approved Thursday, were reported to have demonstrated in the cities of Daraa, Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and the suburbs of Damascus after Friday Prayer.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group in Syria, reported that pro-Assad forces in those cities as well as the embattled central city of Homs fired on some demonstrators and killed at least 56 people, including 12 deserters from the military. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activist group, said 26 people had been killed.

The information from the groups could not be corroborated because of the government's restriction on outside information-gathering in the increasingly violent conflict.

Assad, who has belittled his opponents by characterizing them as foreign-backed armed terrorist gangs, escalated the repression Feb. 4 when Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning his crackdown and calling on him to step aside under an Arab League plan aimed at ending the conflict. The plan calls for new elections and a new government.

Arab diplomats, with wide support in the West and elsewhere, then moved to put the same plan to a vote Thursday, over Syria's objections, in a resolution at the General Assembly. It won, 137-12, and amounts to the strongest global rebuke Assad has faced so far.

Although the resolution has no enforcement power, it raised hopes for the Feb. 24 conference organized by the Arab League. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her European Union counterparts are among those expected to attend.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring uprisings began more than a year ago, delivered an important slap to Assad this month by agreeing to host the conference and by severing diplomatic relations with Syria.

Syria has seen one of the bloodiest crackdowns since the wave of Arab uprisings began more than a year ago. The U.N. says more than 5,400 people were killed in Syria last year alone, and the number of dead and injured continues to rise daily. In addition, 25,000 people are estimated to have sought refuge in neighboring countries and more than 70,000 are internally displaced.

By contrast, deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds. While Libya's toll is unknown and likely higher than Syria's, the conflict differed there: Early on, it became an outright civil war between two armed sides.

Britain and France urged Syria's divided opposition to unite and said it needs more international support to resist the deadly government crackdown.

"What is happening in Syria is appalling," British Prime Minister David Cameron told a news conference Friday in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I'm not satisfied that we are taking all the action we can."

Cameron said Britain is sending food rations for 20,000 people and medical supplies for those affected by fighting in Homs and elsewhere. The aid will include emergency drinking water and essential household items for refugees forced to leave their homes because of fighting.

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

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