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UN: Syria refugee numbers jump 10 percent in week

In this image taken from video obtained from Shaam News Network which has been authenticated based its contents other AP

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke rises from buildings due to heavy shelling in Maadamiyeh south of Damascus, Syria, on Thursday, March 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)

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BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N. said Thursday that the number of registered Syrian refugees jumped 10 percent in the past week alone, part of what the U.N. commissioner for refugees called a “staggering escalation.”

France, meanwhile, pushed for quickly lifting a European Union ban on arming Syrian rebels.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country is ready to supply weapons even if other EU countries disagree. The United States and other countries have been reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists.

Fighting in Syria has intensified, prompting growing numbers of Syrians to flee their country.

The human rights group Amnesty International said Thursday that the regime is increasingly using lethal battlefield weapons, including widely banned cluster bombs, in attacks on residential areas.

“The frequency and scale of such attacks — which constitute war crimes — has increased in recent months, with disastrous consequences for the civilian population,” the group said in a report.

On Thursday, Syrian warplanes struck several areas across the country, activists said.

In Israel, the military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, warned that the regime is making “advanced preparations” for using chemical weapons, but has not given the order yet to activate them.

Kochavi did not elaborate. He also said Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah are fighting alongside Assad.

The Syria conflict began two years ago as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad. A government crackdown triggered an insurgency that turned into a civil war last summer.

U.N. officials said some 4 million of Syria’s 22 million people have been forced from their homes by the fighting, including 2 million who remain in Syria. The U.N. estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed.

The number of Syrians who fled to neighboring countries is growing well beyond initial estimates, the U.N. refugee agency said. At the same time, donor governments have sent only about one-fifth of the $1.5 billion needed to help displaced Syrians for the first six months of this year.

Last week, the U.N. announced that the number of registered refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq and North Africa had reached 1 million.

On Thursday, Reem Alsalem of the U.N. refugee agency said more than 121,000 refugees registered since then, a jump of more than 10 percent.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres noted that the average number of Syrians fleeing their country every day rose from 3,000 in December to 8,000 in February.

“This represents a staggering escalation,” he said in a visit to Lebanon on Thursday, urging decision-makers to do more to end the conflict.

France and Britain have been pushing for a review of the EU’s ban on sending weapons to Syria’s opposition fighters. The current embargo expires in May.

The French foreign minister said Thursday that France and Britain will ask for an EU meeting to lift the embargo, possibly by the end of the month.

“Lifting the embargo is one of the only means left to make things move politically” in Syria, Fabius said, adding that he believes France should arm the rebels.

Asked by France-Info radio if France and Britain could join efforts to arm the opposition, Fabius said, “to lift the embargo, exactly.”

Asked what France would do if European partners insist on a continued embargo, he said France and Britain could refuse to renew it. “France is a sovereign nation,” he said, but did not elaborate.

A French diplomat said France is not talking about breaking the EU embargo but is leaning toward refusing to extend it in May. The diplomat, who wasn’t authorized to be publicly named according to government policy, said it was too early to discuss what kind of arms France might supply.

British Prime Minister David Cameron also hinted this week that his country might refuse to extend the embargo.

Russia, which is supplying weapons to the Syrian military, strongly opposes arms supplies to the rebels, and some international diplomats warn that more fire power is the last thing that Syria needs.

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.



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