BAGHDAD – Thousands of Iraqi nationals have fled by land and air from Syria over the last two days to escape an escalating civil war, officials said Friday, as Iraqi troops were rushed to seal the border across from a post seized by rebels. Baghdad’s prime minister called for the U.N. to help protect the refugees and get them home.
Iraqi officials said about 1,000 had left in eight flights from Damascus, which in the last week has seen its heaviest fighting in Syria’s 16-month uprising. Thousands more poured through a land crossing to Iraq despite the rebel takeover of one other major Syrian border post.
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 group, including children, was found “murdered” at close range.
She said refugees living in Syria, mainly Iraqis who have been living in the Damascus suburb of Seida Zeinab, have left their homes due to the increasing violence and “targeted threats” against them.
“What the innocent Iraqis are subjected to – killings and looting – is similar to what was done by the terrorist groups that harmed Iraq’s security during the past years,” said a statement by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued late Friday.
“We urge the United Nations for immediate intervention and cooperation with the Syrian authorities in order to protect the Iraqis and facilitate their return to their homeland,” the statement said, without giving further details on what the U.N. should do.
More than 2,000 Iraqi troops were rushed to seal the porous desert border near the town of Qaim, the Syrian side of which has been controlled by rebels for two days, said Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Dulaimi. The crossing was blocked by waist-high concrete barriers.
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 around 1,000 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.