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5,000 people fleeing Syria daily as fighting rages on, UN says

BEIRUT — Intense fighting between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters continued around Damascus, the capital, on Friday, and U.N. officials said some 5,000 people are now fleeing the country daily.

Activists reported heavy shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad on opposition-held eastern Ghouta and southern neighborhoods in response to an offensive this week by rebel groups trying to remove government checkpoints and seize strategic areas on the outskirts of Damascus.

Opposition fighters said they downed a MiG fighter jet near the suburb of Douma.

The statements were impossible to independently verify.

Meanwhile, the 5,000 people leaving the country each day, based on January, indicated a 25 percent increase from the previous month, the United Nations said at a news briefing in Geneva.

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, labeled the increase in refugees “a full-on crisis.”

Almost 800,000 Syrians have registered as refugees or are in line to be registered in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Several hundred thousand more people have fled Syria but have not sought refugee status, experts say, meaning more than 1 million Syrians have left the country since the conflict began.

Inside Syria, the U.N. says the humanitarian situation is dire. More than 2 million people still living in Syria have been displaced from their homes, according to estimates. The United Nations has expressed alarm about possible shortages of food and the breakdown of the nation’s health, water supply and sanitation systems.

The fighting continues as the international community pushes for a diplomatic solution to the nearly 2-year-old conflict. On Thursday, at its meeting in Cairo, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation urged “serious dialogue” between the two sides, a prospect that remains unlikely.

Some Damascus rebel groups said they considered the fighting a final battle for the capital, while other groups distanced themselves from such proclamations amid ongoing shortages of weapons and ammunition in the opposition ranks.

Nabil Al-Amir, a spokesman with the Damascus military council, said the clashes were an attempt to relieve pressure from the suburb of Daraya, which has been under intense shelling and bombardment by regime forces from the nearby Mezze airport for weeks. Government soldiers have attempted to retake Daraya, but have only been able to enter the edges, one activist said.

Activists said more than 50 people were killed Wednesday near the central city of Hama by an explosion at a weapons factory as a bus carrying workers was leaving, activists said. Most of the victims are believed to be civilian workers from the factory.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which happened in the government-controlled village of Beraq, and both sides have blamed the other.
 

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