Syrian rebels claim to have seized a key crossing point on the Syria-Turkey border, which could create an access point for weapons and fighters to enter the country and an exit point for refugees. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo.
Updated at 5:37 p.m. ET — Thousands of Syrians fled their country on Friday in one of the biggest refugee exoduses of the 20-month civil war after rebels seized a border town, and the United Nations warned that millions more still in Syria will need help as winter sets in.
In Qatar, the main opposition group outside Syria elected a new leader. However, it will start talks on Saturday with other factions, including representatives of rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces, on forming a wider body that hopes to gain international recognition as a government-in-waiting.
The U.N. said 11,000 refugees had fled in 24 hours, mostly to Turkey. The influx caused alarm in Ankara, which is worried about its ability to cope with such large numbers and has pushed hard, so far without success, for a buffer zone to be set up inside Syria where refugees could be housed.
Rebels overran the frontier town of Ras al-Ain late on Thursday, continuing a drive that has already seen them push Assad's troops from much of the north and seize several crossing points, a rebel commander and opposition sources said.
"The crossing is important because it opens another line to Turkey, where we can send the wounded and get supplies," said Khaled al-Walid, a commander in the Raqqa rebel division.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that compiles opposition activist reports, said at least 20 members of the Syrian security forces were killed when rebel fighters attacked a security headquarters in Ras al-Ain.
Thousands of residents poured out of the Arab and Kurd town, in the northeastern oil-producing province of Hasaka, 375 miles from Damascus.
Syria's opposition SNC elects new head
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition body outside the country, elected veteran activist George Sabra as its new head in Doha on Friday.
Thousands have fled violence in Syria in the last 24 hours, with many Syrian refugees now sheltering in Turkish camps. In his latest interview, Syrian President Assad says his army is trying to avoid civilian deaths. NBC's John Ray reports.
Sabra, a Christian, takes over a body that is under heavy criticism from international allies for being ineffective in the fight against Assad and for being plagued by personal disputes.
Sabra appealed for arms to fight Assad's forces. "We need only one thing to support our right to survive and to protect ourselves: we need weapons, we need weapons," he told reporters.
Qatar, the United States and other powers are pressing the fractious Syrian opposition groups to come together and the SNC has agreed to open unity talks, although it fears its influence will be diluted in any new body.
Western countries and Syria's neighbors fear that hardline Islamist groups close to al-Qaida are growing in influence among rebels on the ground in Syria.
An outline agreement could see the SNC and other opposition figures agree on a 60-member political assembly, mirroring the Transitional National Council in Libya, which united opposition to Moammar Gadhafi last year and took power when he fell.
In Geneva, a senior U.N. official highlighted the plight of Syrians still in the country. An estimated four million people would need humanitarian aid by early next year when the country is in the grip of winter, up from 2.5 million now, said John Ging, director of operations at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
A look back at the violence that has overtaken the country
"Every day our humanitarian colleagues on the ground are engaging with people who are ever more desperate, ever more fearful for their lives and for the lives of their families because of this conflict," Ging told a news conference. "Since this crisis has begun we have not been able to keep pace with the increasing need."
The latest flight of refugees raised the total recorded by the U.N. to over 408,000 in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and North Africa.
At least 38,000 people have been killed since the revolt against Assad erupted nearly 20 months ago, according to Observatory data.
The Turkish state-run Anatolian news agency reported Friday that 26 Syrian military officers had also arrived in Turkey with their families overnight, in the biggest mass desertion of senior soldiers from Assad's forces in months.
Efforts to end the bloodshed have been dogged by regional and international rifts, as well as by divisions between civilian and armed opposition factions inside and outside Syria.
'Sole legitimate representative'
A source inside Doha meetings that lasted into the early hours of Friday morning told Reuters that members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a group made up mainly of exiled politicians, had shifted views and were coming to accept the need to form a wider body.
Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.
"We will not leave today without an agreement," the source told Reuters. "The body will be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Once they get international recognition, there will be a fund for military support."
The SNC, which has previously been the main opposition group on the international stage, may have about one-third of the seats in the new body, but would otherwise lose much of its influence.
Foreign countries that oppose Assad are determined to push Syrian opposition figures to cooperate, which means bridging gaps between exiles and those working in Syria, and between liberals and increasingly powerful Islamist militants.
The West and its regional allies worry that if Assad were to fall before the opposition unites behind a credible body capable of leading the country, increasingly powerful Islamist militia would quickly take over Syria.
People resisting the army of President Bashar Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.
New pressure after Obama’s re-election
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for overhauling the opposition amid eroding faith in the SNC, saying there needed to be representation of those "on the frontlines and dying." British Prime Minister David Cameron also signaled international pressure to unite the opposition.
Pressure on the opposition to unite increased further this week after the re-election of President Barack Obama, which removed uncertainty about the U.S. position.
A diplomat familiar with the talks said that throughout the week the SNC had shifted towards taking international pressure more seriously, especially after Obama's victory.
"The Americans felt a swagger after the results of the election and Obama's win. No one can dismiss them anymore, because they are staying," he told Reuters, adding that a State Department official sat in on Thursday meetings.
"But reaching a real deal over the initiative will also depend on who joins this assembly from the SNC, which will have no real influence after that," the diplomat said.
In an interview with a Russian television channel, Syrian President Bashir Assad vowed to live and die in Syria, even as a 19-month old uprising against him rages. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.
The SNC is due Friday to complete elections to its executive council and choose a new leader, before continuing talks with Seif, representatives of rebel groups and other political factions on forming the new assembly.
Assad told Russia Today television on Thursday he would "live and die in Syria," comments that echoed the words of other Arab leaders before they lost power in 2011.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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