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Large Kurdish exodus from Syria into northern Iraq

The UN refugee agency says 30,000 Syrians, mostly Kurds, have fled into Iraq's northern Kurdish region in the past five days. President Bashar al-Assad's forces claim to have evicted rebels from his Latakia home region.

Thousands of Syrian Kurds continued to flee their homelands, mostly in northeastern Syria, bound for Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region, the UN refugee agency said on Monday. Those fleeing were mostly women, children and the elderly.

It is one of the largest crossings in Syria's two-year-old conflict. The previous peak occurred last November when in 24 hours around 9,000 people left, mainly for Turkey.

A regional spokesman for for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Youssef Mahmoud, said alone on Monday 3,000 had entered northern Iraq. A transit camp had been set up near Irbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish self-ruled region.

The Syria Kurds are fleeing areas where in recent months Kurdish militias had clashed with Islamist al-Qaeda linked rebels, who see Syria's northeast as a link to allied jihadists in Iraq.

Forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pulled out of most Kurdish-majority areas of northern and northeastern Syria last year. Kurds are Syria's largest minority and make up 10 percent of its 23-million population.

Exodus 'massive'

"It is a massive movement of people," said a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Dan McNorton, who added that those fleeing were using a new pontoon bridge over the Tigris river along a border that was otherwise largely closed.

He said the UNHCR has sent trucks loaded with emergency supplies and erected plastic tarpaulins to provide shelter from the sun and heat.

"There was war and looting and problems," said Abdulkarim Brendar, who trekked with his five children to Iraqi Kurdistan. "We did not find a morsel [of food], so, with our children, we came here."

More than 1.9 million Syrian refugees have already registered in neighboring countries since the opposition uprising against al-Assad began in March 2011.

Reverses for rebels?

Forces loyal to al-Assad claimed on Monday to have driven most rebels out of northern Latakia, near the Mediterranean coast, where a rebel offensive began two weeks ago. Latakia is the ancestral land of the Assad clan.

The state news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying the "army retook control of the Nabi Ashia mountain range and adjourning areas."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army had retaken nine villages and checkpoints. It was still trying to recapture two further villages, the observatory said.

A Syrian security source quoted by AFP said the rebels still controlled the neighboring Salma region, a strategic area along the border with Turkey.

Syria's conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and has left Assad's forces controlling Syria's center and west, while rebels hold swathes of its north and east.

UN inspectors fan out

A team of UN inspectors sent to probe claims of the past use of chemical weapons by the regime and rebels left their Damascus hotel on Monday bound for an undisclosed destination.

The inspectors arrived in Syria on Sunday to begin a mission repeatedly delayed by objections from the Assad regime of the scope of the probe.

ipj/kms (AFP, Reuters, APE)