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Over 68,000 migrants entered Europe in January as Syria war intensifies

Tens of thousands of migrants have crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to arrive in Greece this year, the UN has said. The influx comes as fighting between government forces, Islamists and rebels intensifies in Syria.

An estimated number of 68,023 people traveled across the Aegean Sea to Greece since the beginning of 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Sunday. At least 366 people lost their lives while to reach Europe, the report added.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops advanced towards Tal Rifaat, one of the last rebel strongholds in the Aleppo province, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP news agency. According to Syrian pro-government newspaper "al-Watan," taking Tal Rifaat would be a major achievement for the regime, which could then gain control over all of Aleppo.

The offensive was also causing people to flee the area. "The people there are very worried there could be a siege at any time. We expect a lot of people to get out of the city if the situation remains like this, if there is no improvement," Ahmad Abdelaziz of the Syrian American Medical Society told the Associated Press.

According to the UN, around 35,000 of those fleeing had gathered at the Turkish border on Saturday, waiting for Ankara to let them in.

On Sunday, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said his country had "reached the limit of its capacity to absorb the refugees."

"But in the end, these people have nowhere else to go. Either they will die beneath the bombings or we will open our borders," he added, as the European Union insisted it was part of Turkey's international obligations to

open its frontier to refugees.

The EU has pledged 3 billion euros ($3.35 billion) to Ankara to help house and care for refugees and to stem the flow of people entering Europe.

More discussions on the conflict and the consequent refugee crisis are planned for Monday when Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to meet Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

More than 260,000 people have died in Syria since the war began in 2011, and President Bashar al-Assad's forces, now

backed by Russian airstrikes,

went on the offensive against rebels and IS militants. Nearly 2.7 million people have found refuge in Turkey and over a million have crossed over to EU countries.

mg/sms (AFP, AP, dpa)

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