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Syrians flock to Iraq by the thousands

About 30,000 Syrians have fled across the border into northern Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region in the past five days, the UN refugee agency says.

BAGHDAD // About 30,000 Syrians have fled across the border into northern Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region in the past five days, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said yesterday.

The huge influx of people, many of whom are Syrian Kurds escaping escalating violence in north-eastern Syria, has left aid agencies and Iraqi Kurdistan's regional government scrambling to accommodate them all.

"Syrian refugees are still pouring into Iraq's northern Kurdish region in huge numbers and most of them are women and children. The reason behind this sudden flow is still not clear," said Youssef Mahmoud, a spokesman for the agency in the region.

"Today, about 3,000 Syrian refugees crossed the borders and that has brought the number to around 30,000 refugees since Thursday," he said. The latest wave has brought the number of Syrian refugees in the Kurdish region to about 195,000, he added.

About 1.9 million Syrians have fled their country's civil war for refuge abroad, placing a massive strain on neighbouring countries.

The UNHCR set up an emergency transit camp for the new arrivals in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and was sending 15 truckloads of supplies - 3,100 tents, two prefabricated warehouses and thousands of jerry cans to carry water - from its regional stockpile in Jordan.

Kurds are Syria's largest ethnic minority, making up more than 10 per cent of the country's 23 million people. Syria's Kurdish areas have been engulfed by fighting in recent months between Kurdish militias and Islamic rebel factions with links to Al Qaeda.

The Kurdish-rebel rift is just one layer in Syria's increasingly complex and bloody civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, ripped apart the country's delicate sectarian fabric and destroyed the nations' cities and towns. The regime of the president, Bashar Al Assad, has used warplanes, tanks and ballistic missiles to try to pound rebellious areas into submission.

The rebels, along with the United States and other western powers, claim the regime has used chemical weapons in the conflict. The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, both blame the opposition for the alleged chemical attacks.

A team of UN experts yesterday began their long-awaited investigation into the purported used of chemical arms in the conflict.

The team is tasked with determining whether chemical weapons have been used, and if so which ones, but its mandate does not extend to establishing who was responsible for an attack.

The investigators are expected to visit the sites of three alleged chemical-weapons attacks: the village of Khan Al Assal, just west of Aleppo, and two other locations that have not been disclosed.

Jordan said yesterday that it was receiving US technical assistance against any possible chemical threat from Syria. "We are ready for the possibilities of chemical wars ... US teams are helping Jordan with this," said the prime minister, Abdullah Nsur.

Fearing a spillover of the Syrian conflict, the US has also deployed F-16 fighters, Patriot missile defences and about 1,000 troops in Jordan to protect its ally.

The fighting inside Syria, meanwhile, continues unabated.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces in Latakia province had recaptured nine villages as well as all of the hilltop military observation posts that rebels seized two weeks ago.

Activists said fighting was continuing in several villages still held by the rebels in the region, the heartland of Mr Al Assad's Alawite sect.

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse

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