Thousands of Syrians are fleeing from border towns where a high-stakes battle is raging, walking across valleys and ridges to reach safety in neighboring Lebanon, witnesses and the United Nations 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 some 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 neighboring 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.
The UNHCR's Sleiman said refugees weren't able to reach an official border crossing because of the fighting, which began on Friday. She said the families had walked some of the way to Arsal, at least 30 kilometers (20 miles) away.
Former mayor Hojeiri said the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal had a population of some 50,000, roughly divided between citizens and refugees. He said both groups were helping the new arrivals.
"Lebanese are hosting or renting out rooms to Syrians, and the Syrians are hosting Syrians. They are in the wedding halls and we are trying to get them tents as well," he said by telephone.
Syrian refugees have overwhelmed Lebanon since their uprising began three years ago. Lebanese officials estimate there are 1.4 million Syrians in the country, including 800,000 registered refugees.
The clashes have been taking place around the towns of Qara, Rima and Nabak.
The battle has been expected for weeks as troops and opposition fighters reinforced their positions ahead of winter, when much of the area is covered with snow.
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