BAGHDAD -- Hundreds of Iraqis flew out of Syria over the past two days to escape an escalating civil war, officials said Friday, while the U.N. reported increasing violence and "targeted threats" against refugees living in the country.
Thousands more also poured through a major border crossing to Iraq despite rebel takeovers of Syrian government posts and fighting near the two nations' boundaries that prompted the exodus.
The U.N. refugee agency reported Friday that unknown gunmen shot dead an Iraqi refugee family of seven in their Damascus apartment. Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the family, including children, was found "murdered" at close range.
Some 88,000 Iraqis are registered as refugees in Syria, mostly in Damascus, along with about 8,000 refugees from other countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan.
The Iraqi government has so far run eight flights to Damascus and by Friday morning had evacuated 750 residents, said Capt. Saad al-Khafaji of the state-owned Iraqi Airways.
"We will continue the flights until there are no Iraqis left" in Syria, al-Khafaji said. He said transportation officials have stopped bussing Iraqis across the border from Syria "because of the dangers."
Meanwhile, two Iraqi government officials said the border crossing at al-Walid - the largest between Iraq and Syria - remained open. They said an estimated 50 buses, some 3,000 people, had so far come through al-Walid over the past day.
One of the officials, Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Dulaimi, said Syrian government customs inspectors were at their posts at the crossing Friday morning. Al-Dulaimi oversees forces in the region.
The other official, a spokesman for Iraq's western Anbar province named Mohammed Fathi, said the Red Cross was setting up tents and distributing medical supplies on Friday for returnees at the crossing, located about 600 kilometers (373 miles) from Baghdad.
Fadhil Radhi, an Iraqi citizen who said he traveled to Baghdad via the crossing, said he and his family passed through al-Walid around midnight on Friday after deciding that life in Syria was too dangerous. His family of five fled to Syria in 2007 to escape brutal sectarian fighting from their home in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. They were among what the U.N. estimates was more than a million Iraqis who moved to Syria during Iraq's darkest days between 2006 and 2008.
"We decided to return to Iraq because we feared for our lives, especially after the rise in killings and assaults targeting Iraqis living in Syria," Radhi, 48, said Friday while unloading his luggage from the bus that drove him from Damascus. He said tickets for the trip had more than tripled in price - from $30 to $100 per person - in the last week.
"Thank God, we have the money to pay for the trip back because I know families who are stranded in Syria because they do not have money to go back home," he added.
Fathi, the spokesman, said the local Anbar government sent 30 buses to al-Walid to help drive Iraqis home. Both men said the site had remained open throughout Thursday.
Syrian rebels however maintained control for a second day of another border crossing at the Iraqi town of Qaim on Friday, al-Dulaimi said.
An Associated Press photographer at Qaim on Friday witnessed civilains looting the Syrian side of the border crossing, hauling away tables and chairs. A black plume of smoke could be seen over the compound.
Al-Dulaimi added that another band of rebels had attacked a Syrian military outpost near the Iraqi border in the remote Sinjar mountain range on Thursday, killing 21 soldiers in a grisly onslaught.
Other Iraqi officials said two more border crossings between the two countries - near the Iraqi town of Rabiya in northwest Ninevah province, and in the northern Kurdish region - remained open on Friday.
Those officials declined to be named because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Karim Kadim in Baghdad, Khalid Mohammed in Qaim, Iraq, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.
France24 correspondents Matthieu Mabin and Sofia Amara report from the front lines of a rebel offensive against the Syrian army in Damascus.
Watch the exclusive report in the video below.
Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.The AP gives more context:
Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ KenRoth : UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j|
Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.
"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ jenanmoussa : Graphic. We saw in a mosque in #Syria these 4 children staring at dead body. Pic by @HaraldDoornbos: http://t.co/lgq8IAmO #warsucks @akhbar|
Activists say that Syrian security forces swept through two districts in Damascus on Wednesday, killing at least 31 suspected opposition fighters. The Associated Press reports that the army may have been targeting rebel teams that had been using the Nahr Eishah and Kfar Soussa neighborhoods to shell a nearby military airport.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ AP : Russia says Western powers are "openly instigating" opposition groups in Syria: http://t.co/Il6rHsxr -SC|