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Marea, Syria -
Syrian forces pounded rebel hubs in the northern city of Aleppo and battled opposition fighters around Damascus Friday, activists said, as the UN reported a surge in the number of people fleeing.
Violence was also reported in other towns and villages across the country, with the bloodletting showing no signs of any let-up a day after the United Nations formally called time on its observer mission.
Despite the imminent departure of the observers, the UN announced that veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi will take over as international envoy from Kofi Annan, who quit earlier this month.
“The violence and the suffering in Syria must come to an end,” UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in a statement announcing the appointment.
However, adding to fears the fighting could ensnare Syria's neighbours, the US warned its nationals they could be at risk in Lebanon, where the security situation is already fragile after a wave of kidnappings linked to Syria.
On the ground, at least 72 people were killed as the regime continued its onslaught on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, a watchdog which has a network of activists on the ground.
The army clashed with rebels near the main military airport in Damascus and shelled southern parts of the capital as well as areas of the commercial city of Aleppo and the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the Observatory said.
Deadly violence was also reported in the provinces of Homs and Daraa, the cradle of the uprising that began with peaceful protests in March last year but has escalated into an increasingly vicious battle between armed rebels and government forces.
Opposition factions also reported that 65 bodies had been found dumped on a rubbish tip in a town near Damascus, claiming the victims had been bound, executed and set on fire by pro-government forces.
The Syrian Revolutionary Command Council issued a very poor quality video which showed, some of the bodies were in just underwear or half-dressed, their limbs splayed apart, and hands tied behind their backs. Many were charred beyond recognition, piled haphazardly on top of one another amid the piles of trash.
“The victims were handcuffed, extrajudicially executed and burned by Assad forces,” the SRGC said in a statement.
It is impossible to independently verify such claims as journalists are unable to report freely in Syria.
With the international community still deeply divided over how to end the conflict, the UN said the number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries had now soared to at least 170,000.
“There has been a further sharp rise in the number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey,” the UN refugee agency said.
Turkey itself said over 2,000 people had fled across its border since a devastating air strike in the nearby town of Aazaz that residents and activists said had killed around 40 people, including women and children.
And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for President Bashar al-Assad's regime to be “smashed fast” as he visited Turkey's largest refugee camp near the border.
'Assad doesn't deserve to be on this earth'
“After hearing the refugees and their account of the massacres of the regime, Mr Bashar al-Assad doesn't deserve to be on this earth.” he said. “It is an operation of destruction of an entire people that he is trying to accomplish,” he said.
More than 23,000 people have died since the revolt against Assad's iron-fisted rule broke out, according to activists, while the UN puts the toll at around 17,000.
Assad has described the conflict as a battle for the very survival of his minority Alawite-led regime against a foreign “terrorist” plot aided by the West and its allies in the region.
But he has faced a string of high level defections, including by prime minister Riad Hijab and senior general Manaf Tlass, and a bomb attack that killed four security chiefs.
And further isolating his regime, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation on Thursday suspended Syria, while the UN is due to pull out its observers after the mission's mandate ends at midnight on Sunday.
“It is clear that both sides have chosen the path of war... and the space for political dialogue and cessation of hostilities and mediation is very reduced at this point,” UN assistant secretary general for peacekeeping Edmond Mulet said.
And in a damning report this week, a UN panel said government forces and their militia allies had committed crimes against humanity including murder and torture, while also accusing the rebels of war crimes but to a lesser extent.
“We know we are no longer just collateral victims of the conflict, Bashar is actually targeting civilians,” said Yasmine Shashati, a resident of the southwestern Aleppo district of Saif al-Dawla.
Residents of conflict zones are facing increasingly precarious situations, with shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies reported.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who visited Damascus this week, warned that the number of people in need was as high as 2.5 million.
As the two sides become more entrenched in Syria, there are fears the conflict could spread further afield, after mass kidnappings in Lebanon in retaliation for events across the border.
The United States warned that its nationals face increased threats in Lebanon, including the possibility of targeted kidnappings or terrorist attacks, after several Gulf states ordered their nationals to leave. - Sapa-AFP