CAIRO // The Arab League said it was prepared to hand Syria's seat in the organisation to the opposition battling to oust president Bashar Al Assad if it sets up an executive body. The league, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo, called for the opposition Syrian National Coalition "to form an executive body to take up Syria's seat" and attend its next summit in Doha on March 26-27. The umbrella group would retain Syria's seat in the 22-member organisation "until elections leading to the formation of a government to assume the responsibilities of power in Syria", it said, adding that the call was based on "the sacrifices of the Syrian people and the exceptional circumstances" in the country. The seat was held by Damascus until it was suspended from the organisation in 2011.
The announcement came on the same day as the United Nations refugee agency said the number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country and are seeking assistance has topped the 1 million mark, and warned that Syria is heading toward a "full-scale disaster."
The 1 million figure is based on reports from UN agencies in countries neighbouring Syria that have provided safe haven for refugees escaping the civic war, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said in Geneva. In addition, several hundred thousand Syrians who have fled their country have not yet registered as refugees, suggesting the total number well exceeds 1 million.
"With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiralling toward full-scale disaster," Mr Guterres said. Syria's population is about 22 million and the UN estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising began two years ago.
In Cairo, a final statement of the Arab League ministers also said that that Arab states are free to offer military support to rebels fighting the forces of the Syrian president if they wish. Previously the league had stressed that the Syrian opposition and rebels should be supported by humanitarian and diplomatic means.
The statement said they had "stressed the right of each state according to its wishes to offer all types of self defence, including military, to support the resilience of the Syrian people and the Free (Syrian) Army."
Also yesterday, British foreign secretary William Hague said his country will provide armoured vehicles, body armour and search-and-rescue equipment to Syria's opposition.
Britain is broadening its technical assistance as a "necessary, proportionate and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering," he told the House of Commons but will stick to the EU sanctions against Syria, which include an arms embargo that also prevents sending weapons to rebels .
The UN refugee agency has registered more than 300,000 Syrians in Lebanon, although its representatives say many more Syrians are living in the country in dire need of basic aid.
Mr Guterres said the number of refugees has swelled dramatically this year, with most pouring into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
More than 400,000 people have become refugees since January 1, and often arrive in neighbouring countries "traumatised, without possessions and having lost members of their families," he said. Around half are children, the majority under age 11.
"We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched," he said. "This tragedy has to be stopped."
In Beirut, Panos Moumtzis, the UNHCR regional coordinator for Syrian refugees, said that 7,000 Syrians have been crossing into neighbouring countries every day since the fighting escalated in December.
"When you stand at the border crossing, you see this human river flowing in, day and night," Mr Moumtzis said after inspecting UNHCR's registration centres at border crossings in Lebanon.
He said the UN refugee agency badly needs money to help host countries cope and manage the refugee population.Fighting raged yesterday in several parts of the country, especially the north where rebels claimed a major victory when the city of Raqa came under total rebel control, two days into battles with troops loyal to the president's regime.
* With additional reporting from Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters