6 Mar 2013

UK to give Syrian opposition military equipment

As the foreign secretary announces the UK is to supply armoured vehicles to the Syrian opposition, the UN confirms that one million refugees, including 500,000 children, have fled the conflict.

William Hague told MPs the move was intended to end a crisis which has reached “catastrophic proportions”.

He said that he had ordered “more active efforts” after securing a relaxation of an EU arms embargo to allow the provision of non-lethal military equipment to protect civilians.

Up to 70,000 people have died in the conflict and there has been an explosion in the numbers of desperate families trying to escape the escalating conflict, the United Nations has said.

Of the one million Syrian refugees, almost half – 400,000 – have arrived in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq just since the beginning of the year.

The numbers have outstripped even the UN’s “worst-case scenario” projections. It only expected the numbers to reach one million by June.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said: “With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster.

Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster. UN’s Antonio Guterres

“We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched. This tragedy has to be stopped.”

Half of the one million refugees are children, the UN said, most of them aged under 11 years. Charity Save the Children said many of the young refugees had been separated from one or both of their parents.

Its chief executive Justin Forsyth said: “The fact that more than half the refugees who have fled this conflict are children shows how hard families are being hit by this brutal conflict.

Watch again: Jonathan Miller with Syrian refugees as they flee to Jordan

“This is a war that is disproportionately affecting children, and the sharp increase in numbers fleeing the country shows how much worse the situation is getting. Every day we see thousands of children and their families arrive across the border, many with nowhere to go, often hungry and without a change of clothes.

“All they are looking for is somewhere warm and safe to sleep, a nutritious meal, and somewhere they can be children again.”

The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to worsen as the fighting continues. The country has been in turmoil since protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rulewere crushed by the regime almost two years ago and rebel groups began fighting government forces.

The UN’s human rights chief told Channel 4 News President Assad should be investigated for war crimes committed by security forces and other forces allied to him during the fighting.

The international community has stepped up its response as the fighting has escalated, but has still stopped short of any military intervention. Last week, the United States pledged $60m of “non-lethal” aid to support the opposition. For the first time, it also promised support for rebel fighters, including food and medical supplies.