Archive for the ‘ Red Lion Revolution ’ Category

Activists: Syrian rebel attack kills 60 Shiites

June 12, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say Syrian rebels have attacked a village in the country’s east, killing dozens of Shiites there, mostly pro-government fighters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 60 died in Hatla village in the province of Deir el-Zour on Tuesday. An activist based in the province says the rebel attack was in retaliation for an earlier attack by Shiites from Hatla that killed four rebels. The activist, Thaer al-Deiry, who identified himself only by his nickname for fear of government retaliation, spoke via Skype on Wednesday.

The Observatory and al-Deiry say many Shiite villagers from Hatla were forced to flee to nearby Jafra. The clashes came a week after Syrian troops backed by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group captured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

Syrian war enters new phase but no end in sight

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Crispian Balmer

AMMAN/BEIRUT | Mon Jun 10, 2013

(Reuters) – Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are massing around Aleppo in preparation for an offensive to retake the city and build on battlefield gains that have swung the momentum of Syria’s war to Assad and his Hezbollah allies.

Rebels reported signs of large numbers of Shi’ite Muslim fighters flowing in from Iraq to help Assad end the civil war that has killed at least 80,000 people and forced 1.6 million Syrians to flee abroad.

The move to a northern front comes as Syria’s war is increasingly infecting its neighbors – Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel – and widening a regional sectarian faultline between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

For the first time since the start of the uprising in March 2011, an Israeli minister suggested on Monday that Assad might prevail in the war, thanks in large part to support from Shi’ite Iran and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

However, efforts to dislodge rebels in Aleppo will be a much tougher proposition than last week’s capture of the town of Qusair, with military analysts predicting that the conflict will probably drag on for months or years as Assad’s many foes are likely to be galvanized by recent rebel reversals.

Alarmed by Assad’s swift advances and hoping to turn the tide, Washington might decide later this week on whether to start arming the rebels, a U.S. official said.

Assad’s army is preparing to lift sieges on areas close to Aleppo before turning its sights on the country’s second city, according to the semi-official Syrian al-Watan daily

“Any battle in Aleppo will be huge and most certainly prolonged,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

“You have large numbers of rebels in several areas of the city. There will have to be a lot of very close combat fighting that always takes a lot of time and leaves many casualties.”

Rebel brigades poured into Aleppo last July and have more than half the great merchant city under their control. The front lines are largely stable and a growing number of radicalized, Islamist foreign fighters have joined rebel ranks.

PINCER MOVEMENT

Opposition activists and military sources said the army was airlifting troops to Aleppo airport and to the Kurdish area of Ifrin behind rebel lines, as well as reinforcing two rural Shi’ite Muslim enclaves, Zahra and Nubbul, north of the city.

“The regime appears to be making a pincer movement to try and regain the major cities across the north and east of Syria ahead of the Geneva conference,” said Abu Taha, a northern rebel commander, referring to proposed international peace talks.

The United States and Russia hope to hold the conference in Switzerland next month, but Britain has warned that Assad’s recent success might make him reluctant to offer the sort of compromises believed necessary to end the bloodshed.

After appearing to seize the initiative in 2012, the rebels have suffered a series of setbacks this year, with Assad’s demoralized forces significantly bolstered by the arrival of well-trained fighters from the Shi’ite Muslim group, Hezbollah.

Rebels said these guerrillas had played a determining role in the emphatic victory last week in Qusair, which controls vital supply routes across Syria and into Lebanon.

A security source in Lebanon said Hezbollah would continue to assist Assad, but unlike the battle for Qusair, which lies close to its home turf, it might not dispatch its troops north to Aleppo, preferring instead to offer training.

Looking to relieve the growing pressure on Aleppo, rebels attacked on Monday two major military compounds in northern Syria — on the outskirts of the city of Raqqa and the Minnig airport in the adjacent province of Aleppo.

“The rebels have raised pressure … in the last two days to pre-empt any attack on Aleppo,” said Abdelrazzaq Shlas, a member of the opposition administrative council for the province.

Activists said the army had retaliated by bombing Raqqa, killing at least 20 civilians and fighters.

“There is a big loss of lives, but the aim is to deflate the morale boost that the regime received after Qusair and not allow it to go to Geneva as a victor,” Shlas said.

But in a worrying development for the rebels, Shlas said there were reports of militiamen loyal to Iraqi Shi’ite Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr streaming into Syria to bolster Assad’s forces.

Their arrival would underline the increasingly regionalized nature of the war following Hezbollah’s entry into the fray.

JIHAD

Lister, who monitors Sunni Muslim Jihadist forums, said it seemed a growing number of Sunni men appeared ready to take up arms in Syria with the mainly Sunni rebel forces.

“If you believe what you read in the forums, then there are a lot of people heading to Syria to take up the fight,” he said, adding that there were also a growing number of death notices for foreign fighters appearing on the web, including six in one day last week.

Israel, which shares a tense border with Syria, has regularly predicted the fall of Assad. But on Monday, Minister for Intelligence Yuval Steinitz offered a very different view.

Speaking to foreign reporters in Jerusalem, he said Assad’s government “might not just survive but even regain territories”.

Western nations, including the United States, have said Assad must stand down, but have thus far refused to arm the rebels, worried the weaponry might fall into the hands of radical elements, including groups tied to al Qaeda.

On a visit to Aleppo earlier this month, a Reuters correspondent saw a marked increase in the number of hardcore Islamist groups, who seemed to have gained ascendancy over the more moderate Free Syrian Army that led the initial combat.

Rebels in the city also seemed more focused on resolving day-to-day issues rather taking the fight to Assad.

“The biggest problem we have is thievery. There are thieves who pretend to be rebels and wear rebel clothes so they can steal from civilians,” said Abu Ahmed Rahman, head of the Revolutionary Military Police in Aleppo, an organization set up to resolve disputes between rebels and civilians.

But there were also signs of anti-Assad forces digging in, preparing for an eventual army onslaught.

“This conflict has no discernable end point at the moment,” said Lister.

(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Aleppo and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/10/us-syria-crisis-future-idUSBRE9590P520130610.

EU ends arms embargo against Syrian rebels

Brussels (AFP)

May 28, 2013

The European Union finally agreed Monday to lift its embargo against arming Syrian rebels, after tough talks that exposed sharp differences between Britain and France, champions of the move, and their more reluctant partners.

However none of the 27 European member states intends to send any arms to the rebels in the coming months, for fear of endangering a US-Russia peace initiative for Syria.

After a grueling 12 hours of talks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the deal to lift the arms embargo against the rebels, while maintaining the remainder of a far-reaching two-year package of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Without such a deal, the entire set of sanctions, including an assets freeze on Assad and his cronies, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions, would have lapsed at midnight on Friday.

But the agreement reached by EU foreign ministers in Brussels failed to come underpinned by a tight range of safeguards demanded for both ethical and political reasons by opponents of the long-running Franco-British push to arm Syria’s rebels.

“It was not possible to find a compromise with France and Britain,” said Austrian Foreign Michael Spindelegger, a longtime outspoken opponent of the move.

Austria, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic were reticent about pouring more arms into a conflict that has already cost some 94,000 lives.

To send arms is “against the principles” of Europe which is a “community of peace”, said Spindelegger.

A French official in Paris stressed that “this is a theoretical lifting of the embargo. In concrete terms, there will be no decision on any deliveries before August 1”.

Such a delay will allow for the planned US-Russia sponsored international peace conference on Syria, which it is hoped both the Assad regime and opposition figures will attend, to take place in Geneva in June.

The deal made in Brussels leaves the decision to supply arms to the rebels up to each nation. Ministers nonetheless vowed to stick to safeguards against misuse and to respect EU rules on arms exports.

Hague stressed that Britain, while championing the move, had “no immediate” plans to supply weapons to the rebels fighting Assad.

“None of the member states have the intention of actually providing arms at this stage,” said Frans Timmermans, the Dutch minister who tried to steer a compromise.

“Member states will have to decide for themselves in the future whether they will provide groups with arms in that region.”

But a written vow to respect a joint moratorium on supplying arms until after the planned peace conference in Geneva next month was eliminated in the final deal.

In Istanbul, Syria’s opposition Coalition had urged EU foreign ministers to lift the embargo.

“It’s the moment of truth that we’ve been waiting for for months,” said spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.

Hague said it had been a “difficult” decision for EU partners who believe delivering arms would serve only to fuel the conflict.

“I think it is the right decision,” he added. “It will support political progress on Syria and our attempts to bring together a Geneva (peace) conference.”

Hague said Britain saw only a political solution and a diplomatically supported solution for Syria but that Monday’s ground-breaking decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime of what we think of the continued brutality and murder and criminality of this regime”.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks before the finish to meet in Paris with his Russian and US counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, over efforts to convene the Syria peace conference in Geneva.

According to a document obtained by AFP, a compromise favored by most nations would have formally postponed the actual delivery of arms until a fresh political decision by all EU members by August 1 “in light of the developments related to the US-Russia initiative”.

“Quite a lot of arms are already going to the wrong hands,” said Timmermans. “The parties to the conflict don’t have a shortage of arms, frankly.”

EU diplomats said Britain had refused to agree to put the decision to the EU a second time by August 1. It wanted the deal to be implemented automatically after a set period.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/EU_ends_arms_embargo_against_Syrian_rebels_999.html.

Syrian rebels shoot down regime helicopter in east

May 06, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels shot down a military helicopter in the country’s east, killing eight government troops on board as President Bashar Assad’s troops battled opposition forces inside a sprawling military air base in the north for the second straight day, activists said Monday.

In the past months, rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad have frequently targeted military aircraft and air bases in an attempt to deprive his regime of a key weapon used to target opposition strongholds and reverse rebel gains in the 2-year-old conflict.

The fighting inside the Mannagh air base in northern Syria came a day after Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the capital, Damascus, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday posted a video online showing several armed men standing in front of the wreckage. One of the fighters in the footage says it’s a helicopter that the rebels shot down late Sunday in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, along Syria’s border with Iraq.

As the man speaks, the camera shifts to a pickup truck piled with bodies. The fighter is then heard saying that all of Assad’s troops who were aboard the helicopter were killed in the downing. He says Islamic fighters of the Abu Bakr Saddiq brigade brought down the helicopter as it was taking off from a nearby air base in the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said eight troops were killed. On Sunday, rebels occupied parts of the Mannagh military air base after weeks of fighting with government troops who have been defending the sprawling facility near the border with Turkey for months, the Observatory said.

Assad’s warplanes were pounding rebel positions inside the Mannagh air base Monday as clashes between rebels and government forces raged on, the Observatory said, adding there was an unknown number of casualties on both sides.

The rebels moved deep into the air base on Sunday despite fire from government warplanes, capturing a tank unit inside the base and killing the base commander, Brig. Gen. Ali Salim Mahmoud, according to another activists group, the Aleppo Media Center.

The Israeli airstrike on Sunday, the second in three days and the third this year, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles hit a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties. The reports did not specify the number or say if the casualties were civilians or troops.

State-run SANA news agency made no mention of the fighting inside the Mannagh air base. But the agency reported that government troops on Monday regained control of villages along the highway that links the northern city of Aleppo to its civilian airport, the country’s second largest.

Syrian “armed forces restored security and stability to (six) villages” south of the city and along the airport highway, SANA said, calling it a “major strategic victory in the north.” Much of the north has been in rebel hands since the opposition fighters last summer launched an offensive in the area, capturing army bases and large swaths of land along the border with Turkey and whole neighborhoods inside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

The rebels have for months battled regime troops over the airport complex that includes army bases and a military air field. They’ve captured village and towns along the strategic highway and earlier this year advanced within a few kilometers (miles) miles of the airport, cutting the main road the army has been using to ferry troops and supplies to its bases at the airport.

But last month government troops recaptured the village of Aziza on a strategic road that links Aleppo with its airport and military bases, dealing a huge setback to the rebels unable to hold on to the territory in the face of Assad’s superior fire power.

The Syrian conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011, but eventually turned into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people according to the United Nations.

More than one million Syrians have fled their homes during the fighting and sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Millions of others have been displaced inside Syria.

In Geneva, former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said a U.N. commission has indications that Syrian rebel forces used nerve agent sarin as a weapon in their fight against Assad’s regime — but no evidence that government forces also used sarin as a chemical weapon.

Del Ponte is on the U.N.’s four-member independent human rights panel probing alleged war crimes and other abuses in Syria. She told Italian-language Swiss public broadcaster SRI in an interview broadcast Sunday night that the indications are based on interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals in neighboring countries.

The panel’s investigators have “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” said del Ponte.

Associated Press Writer John Heilprin contributed to this report from Geneva.

Rebels free 21 UN captives in southern Syria

March 10, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Rebels in southern Syria freed 21 U.N. peacekeepers on Saturday after holding them hostage for four days, driving them to the border with Jordan after accusations from Western officials that the little-known group had tarnished the image of those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

The abduction and the tortured negotiations that ended it highlight the disorganization of the rebel movement, which has hindered its ability to fight Assad and complicates vows by the U.S. and others to provide assistance.

It also has raised concerns about the future of U.N. operations in the area. The Filipino peacekeepers were abducted on Wednesday by one of the rebel groups operating in southern Syria near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where a U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.

Activists associated with the group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, gave different reasons for seizing the 21 men. First they demanded that all government forces leave the area. Then they suggested the peacekeepers were human shields against government attacks. Then they declared them “honored guests” held for their own safety.

They also released videos online, including one on Saturday of a bearded rebel commander with his arms around two peacekeepers’ shoulders, flashing a V for victory sign. On Saturday, after negotiations that the top U.N. official in Damascus described as “long and difficult,” the rebels changed the plan to deliver the peacekeepers to a U.N. team, instead taking them to the Jordanian border.

Video broadcast by Arab satellite channels late Saturday showed them sitting at a round conference table in Amman, their bright blue helmets in front of them. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed their release and called on all parties in Syria to respect the peacekeepers’ freedom of movement.

Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, said Sunday the initial plan for the peacekeepers is for them to stay in Jordan for two days before they return to the Golan Heights.

Hernandez also cited reports from Philippine Ambassador to Jordan Olivia Palala indicating that the peacekeepers are safe. “They are safe, they are unharmed, they are OK, and they are whole,” he said, quoting Palala.

It was the first time in nearly two years of violence in Syria that U.N. personnel have been directly caught up in the civil war, which evolved from an uprising against Assad that broke out in March 2011 and has left more than 70,000 people dead.

Since then, hundreds of independent rebel groups have formed across the country to fight Assad’s forces, overrunning military bases and seizing territory in northern and eastern Syria while the regime maintains its grip in the center and the capital, Damascus.

Although some groups have banded together into organized brigades, most still operate independently, competing with each other for resources and booty from captured sites. Even the rebel’s political leadership, the Syrian National Coalition, which the U.S. and other powers have officially recognized, has no direct control over fighters on the ground. And it remains unclear how many rebels follow its associated High Military Command, which was formed in Turkey in December.

This lack of a central command has hindered rebel efforts against government forces and discouraged the U.S. and others from providing arms. Last month, the U.S. promised $60 million dollars in new aid for the opposition but refused to arm the rebels, saying more weapons would worsen the situation and could help extremists.

The release of the 21 peacekeepers serves as a case study in rebel disorganization. As the days passed and the captors’ terms changed, international indignation rose. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland blasted the Syrian government on Friday for shelling the area, while also warning the rebels that the kidnapping was “not good for their reputation and that they need to immediately release these people.”

The men were held in the village of Jamlah, less than two kilometers (a mile) from the Jordanian border. A U.N. team tried to retrieve the hostages on Friday, but abandoned the plan because of government shelling.

On Saturday, another U.N. team reached the area and stopped in a village less than a mile away to wait for the captives, said Mokhtar Lamani, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. Lamani said the team was “surprised” when the rebels issued a “very urgent request” that the team come to the village itself.

The team demurred, Lamani said, then was “surprised” again when rebels took the peacekeepers directly to Jordan. “We were surprised to hear to hear the news from a satellite channel that they had reached Jordan,” he said. “Praise God in the end that all of them were released safely.”

An activist associated with the captors said via Skype that the rebels had not been able to reach the U.N. team because of “security conditions” so had taken them to Jordan instead. He said the Syrian government had been shelling and carrying out airstrikes on the area for weeks, and that locals worried the situation would get worse after the captives left.

“They lightened the shelling today, but we fear that now they will launch a harsh attack on the area,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals. The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a letter to the United Nations Saturday that the Syrian army had held its fire in the area “out of concern for the security and safety of the U.N. forces.”

It called on the U.N. to “unequivocally condemn the attacks of those terrorist groups against civilians and work to dislodge those terrorist groups immediately from the region.” The Syria government says the uprising is a foreign-backed conspiracy to weaken the country carried out by “terrorists” — its blanket term for the opposition.

The peacekeepers are part of a U.N. mission known as UNDOF that was set up to monitor a cease-fire in 1974, seven years after Israel captured the plateau and a year after it pushed back Syrian troops trying to recapture the territory.

The truce’s stability has been shaken in recent months, as Syrian mortar shells have hit the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli officials worry the violence will prompt UNDOF to end its mission.

On Friday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said “the mission in the Golan needs to review its security arrangements and it has been doing that.”

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

UN says 21 peacekeepers detained on Golan Heights

March 07, 2013

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Armed fighters linked to the Syrian opposition detained 21 U.N. peacekeepers from the Philippines on Wednesday in the increasingly volatile zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights, a new escalation in the spillover of Syria’s civil war.

The U.N. Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release. In Manila, Philippine officials that Syrian rebels were holding 21 Filipino peacekeepers “as guests.” Early Thursday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the U.N. commander on the ground told him that negotiations were progressing. He said he was told “by tomorrow, they expect all of these 21 to be released.”

Philippine military spokesman Col. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos said the peacekeepers were in a military convoy when they were “suddenly held at one Syrian rebel outpost. They were allowed to go through the first outpost but were stopped at the second outpost.”

The troops, part of a Philippine contingent of 300 peacekeepers, were taken to a “safe area” after their vehicles were taken, he said. The capture comes a week after the announcement that a member of the peacekeeping force is missing. The force, known as UNDOF, was established a year after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It monitors the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces and maintains a cease-fire.

Israeli officials have grown increasingly jittery as the Syrian war moves closer to Israel. There have been several instances in which stray fire has landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, and Israel is concerned that Syrian weapons could fall into the hands of hostile groups and be used against Israel.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current Security Council president, said the capture of the peacekeepers “is particularly unacceptable and bizarre” because the UNDOF peacekeepers are unarmed and their mission has nothing to do with Syria’s internal conflict.

“They are there on a completely different mission so there is no reason at all under any circumstances, any kind of sick imagination to try to harm those people,” he said. Churkin said U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, who briefed the council behind closed doors, identified the captors as being from a group associated with the Syrian armed opposition.

“There was no fighting, according to his briefing to us,” Churkin said. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the capture of the 21 peacekeepers, U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.

Del Buey said the U.N. observers were on a regular supply mission when they were stopped by about 30 armed fighters near an observation post that was damaged in heavy combat last weekend and had been evacuated.

A video posted online by activists showed a group of armed rebels standing around at least three white U.N. vehicles with the words UNDOF on them, allegedly in the village of Jamlah in Daraa province.

The video, circulated by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, accuses the peacekeepers of assisting the Syrian regime to redeploy in an area near the Golan that the fighters had seized a few days ago in battles that left 11 fighters and 19 regime forces dead.

A man identified as Abu Qaed al-Faleh, spokesman for the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, announced the group is holding the peacekeepers until Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces withdraw from Jamlah.

“They will not be released until after Bashar Assad’s forces withdraw from the village of Jamlah bordering Israel,” the man said. Churkin urged countries with influence on the Syrian opposition to use it to help free the peacekeepers. He did not name any countries but Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are known to have been providing military aid to some Syrian rebel groups.

The international community has been divided in its response to Syria’s conflict. The United States and other countries have supported Syria’s political opposition but have been reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels. The Obama administration, however, announced last week that it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to the rebels.

Russia and China, meanwhile, have continued to back Assad’s regime. Human Right Watch, meanwhile, is investigating whether the same rebels linked to seizing the peacekeepers were involved in the executions of captured regime soldiers in another incident around Jamlah several days ago. The rights group began the investigation after receiving one video apparently showing the capture of the Syrian soldiers and a second video showing bodies in the same area, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said.

“We were just starting to investigate this today … when we learned about the incident with the UN peacekeepers,” he said. Asked about why the rebels might be holding the U.N. peacekeepers, he said: “This seems to be a rather inexperienced group. It shows the desperation that many people, including armed groups, around Syria feel about protecting the civilians in their own villages.”

Ban has warned of escalating military activity along the Israeli-Syrian border as a result of the intensifying Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 and has cost more than 70,000 lives. In December, Ban accused the Syrian government of serious violations of the 1974 separation agreement and called on both countries to halt firing across the cease-fire line. He cited numerous clashes between Syrian security forces and opposition fighters in the disengagement zone.

In response, he said, UNDOF has adopted a number of security measures.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Lebanon, and Hrvoje Hranjski and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines contributed to this report.

Syrian refugees top 1 million, rebels take city

March 06, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s accelerating humanitarian crisis hit a grim milestone Wednesday: The number of U.N.-registered refugees topped 1 million — half of them children — described by an aid worker as a “human river” of thousands spilling out of the war-ravaged country every day.

Nearly 4 million of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes by the civil war. Of the displaced, 2 million have sought cover in camps and makeshift shelters across Syria, 1 million have registered as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and several hundred thousand more fled the country but haven’t signed up with the U.N. refugee agency.

The West has refrained from military intervention in the two-year-old battle to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, and many Syrians hold the international community responsible for their misery.

“The refugee numbers swelled because the world community is sitting idly, watching the tyrant Assad killing innocent people,” said Mohammed Ammari, a 32-year-old refugee in the Zaatari camp straddling Jordan’s border with Syria. “Shame, shame, shame. The world should be ashamed.”

Despite an overall deadlock on the battlefield, the rebels have made recent gains, especially in northern Syria. On Wednesday, they completed their capture of Raqqa, the first major city to fall completely into rebel hands, activists said.

But with no quick end to the conflict in sight, the refugee problem is bound to worsen, said Panos Moumtzis of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. The number of uprooted Syrians is still lower than those displaced in other conflicts, including Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, but the Syria crisis will likely be protracted, and widespread devastation will make quick repatriation unlikely.

“We fear that the worst may not have come yet,” Moumtzis said. The exodus from Syria picked up significantly in recent months, turning into a “human river flowing in, day and night,” he added. The number of registered refugees doubled since December, he said, with some 7,000 fleeing Syria every day.

Many refugees moved from shelter to shelter in Syria first before deciding to leave the country, while others were driven out by the increasing lack of basic resources, such as bread and fuel, in their hometowns. In the hardest-hit areas, entire villages have emptied out and families spanning several generations cross the border together.

On Wednesday, a 19-year-old mother of two became the one-millionth Syrian refugee to register with UNHCR. She would only give her first name, Bushra, because she feared reprisals. Bushra waited with several others at a U.N. office in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli to sign up. Along with her 4-year-old daughter, Batoul, and 2-year-old son, Omar, she fled fighting in the central city of Homs more than two weeks ago.

“Our life conditions are very bad. It is very expensive here (in Lebanon) and we cannot find any work,” Bushra said. Only about 30 percent of the 1 million registered refugees live in 22 camps — 17 in Turkey, three in Jordan and two in Iraq — and the rest live in communities in host countries, Moumtzis said.

Zaatari, one of the largest, is home to some 120,000 people. Refugees have been struggling with harsh desert conditions, including cold and floods in the winter, and scorching heat, along with snakes and scorpions, in the summer.

Moumtzis said he recently met a woman in Zaatari with an ID that shows her to be 101 years old. The woman, from the southern Syrian town of Daraa, was carried by her relatives, he said. The U.N. refugee agency needs money to help overstretched host countries cope. Of the $1 billion in refugee aid pledged at a donor conference in Kuwait in January, only $200 million has come through, officials said.

“We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched,” said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, adding that “Syria is spiraling toward full-scale disaster.”

The uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests, but soon became a civil war. The rebel takeover of Raqqa, a city of 500,000, would consolidate opposition gains in the northern towns along the Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey to Iraq.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said rebels seized control of the military intelligence headquarters and another security building after three days of fighting with regime holdouts.

In southern Syria, rebel fighters detained about 20 U.N. peacekeepers Wednesday, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey. The peacekeepers are part of a force that monitors a cease-fire between Israel and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights.

In video circulated by the Observatory, a rebel identifying himself as a fighter from the “Yarmouk Brigade” walks along an armored U.N. vehicle. He accuses the peacekeepers of helping regime soldiers redeploy in an area near the Golan that the fighters had seized a few days earlier.

Del Buey said the U.N. observers were on a regular supply mission when they were stopped by the rebels. He said a team was dispatched to try to resolve the issue. The Observatory quoted rebels as saying the peacekeepers, all Filipinos, would not be released until regime forces withdraw from a village called Jamla.

The U.N. Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release. Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for the international group Human Rights Watch, said he is investigating suspicions, based on amateur video, that the same group of rebels was involved in the execution of captured regime soldiers in the area several days ago.

In Belgium, the top rebel commander renewed an appeal to the international community to send weapons to the opposition. Gen. Salim Idris, head of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, asked for anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to protect Syrian civilians from Assad’s warplanes.

He said Russia and Iran are aiding the regime, while the West, while calling for Assad’s ouster, is not doing enough to help the rebels. “The people don’t understand why the international community just looks at the news on their TVs,” he said. “They just speak in the media and say, ‘that is not good and the regime must stop and must go, Bashar must go.’ And they don’t act.”

Britain seemed to be stepping up its support. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country would provide armored vehicles, body armor and search-and-rescue equipment to the opposition. But he said Britain is sticking to the European Union’s sanctions against Syria, which include an arms embargo.

In Cairo, the 22-member Arab League gave a diplomatic boost to the opposition. The League’s chief, Nabil ElAraby, offered Syria’s seat to the opposition, provided it forms a representative executive council. The League had suspended Syria’s membership in 2011, after Assad’s government did not abide by an Arab peace plan.

Associated Press writers Barbara Surk, Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut; Jamal Halaby in Amman; David Rising in Berlin; Don Melvin in Brussels; Jill Lawless in London; and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.