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Refugees flood out of Syria as Bashar Assad's military pummels rebels

Bulent Kilic / AFP - Getty Images

Syrian refugees arrive at the Turkish border at Reyhanli in Antakya, Wednesday.

A dramatic increase in the numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing President Bashar Assad's regime was reported Thursday, as his forces appeared to have routed the opposition in at least two key cities.

On the anniversary of the uprising, the opposition appeared to be in disarray, with The New York Times reporting that several prominent members of the main opposition exile group, the Syrian National Council, had resigned, claiming it was autocratic and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood faction.

The Times, which headlined its article "Syria Opposition Group Is Routed and Divided," said that the government's takeover of the cities of Homs and Idlib was near complete, fueling frustration among the rebels.

"What happened in Homs is betrayal,"  Kamal al-Labwani, a respected dissident who has resigned, told the paper. "There is a sense of irresponsibility on the part of the council."

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On the ground, Assad’s forces pressed home their military advantage, appearing to step up the offensive against rebel strongholds, sending tanks into the southern town of Deraa, where the rebellion began on March 15, 2011, after people were appalled by the torture of children over anti-Assad graffiti.

Official media announced government forces had cleared "armed terrorists" from the northwestern city of Idlib. However, there were reports of continuing clashes in areas around Idlib, as well as close to the central city of Homs.

The Turkish official said there had been a sharp increase in the flow of people fleeing the country, bringing the total number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey to some 14,000.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama say that there should be a political solution to the violent upheaval in Syria.

"Around 1,000 people crossed the border from Syria to Turkey in the last 24 hours," the official said. "We expect this to continue as long as the operation goes on in Idlib."

Amid dire warnings that Syria is sinking into a protracted civil war, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has demanded further clarification from Damascus over its response to proposals aimed at ending the violence.

He is due to report back to a divided U.N. Security Council on Friday. Russia and China remain behind a defiant Assad while exasperated Western powers push for regime change.

The United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting. Some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a refugee crisis.

Another deadly day in Syria as up to 50 civilians, including women and children, have been killed in what activists claim was a massacre in the city of Homs. ITN's John Ray reports.

Syrian forces had pounded Idlib with artillery in recent days before sending in troops to regain control of the city, which had been a bastion for the Free Syria Army -- a disparate collection of lightly armed militants led by deserters.

"Security and peace of mind returned to the city of Idlib after authorities cleared its neighborhoods of armed terrorist groups which had terrorized citizens," the state news agency Sana reported on Thursday.

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The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pockets of resistance remained in Idlib.

"The army has control of the main streets but not the alleyways and side roads," said Rami Abdulrahman, who relies on a network of Syrian residents for his information.

Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.

Syrian state television said there would be a "Global March for Syria" to honor those killed by the rebels and video footage showed crowds gathering in a central Damascus square.

The government has blamed foreign powers and "terrorists" for the chaos and say 2,000 soldiers have died in the conflict.

Deraa quiet on anniversary
Assad confidently predicted at the start of 2011 that Syria was immune from the "Arab Spring", in which the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were swept from power.

But on March 15, a few dozen protesters braved the streets of Damascus to call for more freedom. Days later riots broke out in Deraa, on the border with Jordan, to protest against the torture of local boys caught writing anti-government graffiti.

A contact in Deraa told Reuters most schools and shops in the main commercial area were closed on Thursday, with hundreds of security forces patrolling the streets. State employees were being ordered to stage a pro-Assad rally, residents said.

Despite a crumbling economy and tightening sanctions, Assad still seems to have significant support within Syria, notably in its two top cities -- Damascus and Aleppo. Its main ally Iran also remains supportive.

Diplomats say the fighting is developing along sectarian lines. The Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 75 percent of the population of 23 million, is at odds with Assad's Alawite sect, which represents 10 percent but controls the levers of power.

Other minorities, such as the Christians, are sticking with Assad for fear of reprisals should he be ousted, analysts say.

"The strategy of the regime is civil war, after it failed to silence the people. So it's trying to protect its future by moving toward dividing the country," said Najati Tayyara, a veteran dissident and Sunni liberal who has fled to Jordan.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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