Beirut - Thousands of Syrians are fleeing from border towns where a high-stakes battle is raging, walking across valleys and ridges to reach safety in neighbouring Lebanon, witnesses and the UN said on Sunday.
They are packing into wedding halls and waiting for makeshift tents as they flee the steadily intensifying fighting battle that began on Friday, said Bassel Hojeiri, former mayor of the border town of Arsal where most of the refugees have headed.
He estimated about 10 000 people had fled to the town, saying an influx of Syrians during the past three years of conflict in that country had caused the population to nearly double. Dana Sleiman of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees put the total number of refugee arrivals over the weekend at around 1 000 families. She counted families, not individuals.
A Syrian government offensive in the rugged Qalamoun hills, which stretch from Damascus to neighbouring Lebanon, seeks to cut rebel supply lines to opposition-held enclaves around the capital.
Activists and analysts say the battle may be the final blow that dislodges rebels from the Damascus periphery, where food is running short and opposition fighters have lost a series of strongholds in recent weeks to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.