BAGHDAD (AP) — 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. The U.N.'s refugee agency said Iraqis may increasingly be targets of Syria's violence after a family of seven was gunned down in their apartment.
Iraqi officials said about 1,000 had left in eight flights from Damascus, which in the last week has seen its heaviest fighting in the country's 16-month uprising. Thousands more also poured through a major 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.
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. He said transportation officials have stopped bussing Iraqis across the border from Syria "because of the dangers."
Iraq's government spokesman, meanwhile, said Syrian rebels are controlling one major border crossing between the two counties, but three others remain in the hands of the Syrian regime and continue to process the fleeing migrants.
Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said rebels are at the crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim, located in the Euphrates river valley 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Baghdad.
But he refuted earlier reports that rebels had seized all major border posts, and said that three others — including the desert crossing at al-Walid, the largest — remained open. Officials said an estimated 50 buses carrying some 3,000 people had so far come through al-Walid over the past day.
One of the officials, Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Dulaimi, said Syrian government customs inspectors were at their posts at the crossing Friday, and were stamping passports for departing traffic as usual. Al-Dulaimi oversees forces in the region.
Mohammed Fathi, the spokesman for Iraq's western Anbar province, said the Red Crescent was setting up tents and distributing medical supplies on Friday for returnees at the crossing, located about 600 kilometers (373 miles) west of Baghdad.
Fadhil Radhi, an Iraqi citizen who said he traveled to Baghdad via the crossing, said he and his family passed through al-Walid around midnight on Friday after deciding that life in Syria was too dangerous. His family of five had moved to Syria in 2007 to escape violence in their home in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. They were among what the U.N. estimates was more than a million Iraqis who moved to Syria during Iraq's darkest days between 2006 and 2008.
"We decided to return to Iraq because we feared for our lives, especially after the rise in killings and assaults targeting Iraqis living in Syria," Radhi, 48, said Friday while unloading his luggage from the bus that drove him from Damascus. He said tickets for the trip had more than tripled in price — from $30 to $100 per person — in the last week.
"Thank God, we have the money to pay for the trip back because I know families who are stranded in Syria because they do not have money to go back home," he added.
Spokesman Fathi said the local Anbar government has received an estimated 2,000 pleas for help from Iraqis living in Damascus who cannot reach the airport to catch flights out because of deadly clashes between government forces and rebels in the surrounding neighborhoods.
"We appeal to the both parties fighting each other to stop the clashes for some period in order to facilitate the movement of our people to the airport in order to take the flights to Baghdad," Fathi said.
Syrian rebels maintained control for a second day of the crossing at the Iraqi border town of Qaim on Friday, al-Dulaimi said.
An Associated Press photographer at Qaim on Friday witnessed civilians looting the Syrian side of the border crossing, hauling away tables and chairs. A black plume of smoke could be seen over the compound.
Al-Dulaimi said than 2,000 Iraqi troops were rushed Friday to reinforce the mostly porous border north and south of Qaim. At Qaim itself, the army sealed off the border crossing with waist-high concrete blast walls.
He said there appeared to be no Syrian forces between the border at Qaim and the nearest Syrian city, Dair al-Zawr, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) away. The area is traditionally controlled by Sunni tribes.
Another band of rebels had attacked a Syrian military outpost near the Iraqi border in the remote Sinjar mountain range on Thursday, killing 21 soldiers in a grisly onslaught, al-Dulaimi said. Al-Dabbagh described it as a massacre of the Syrian soldiers. "They slaughtered them in a very bad way," he said, without providing other details.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Karim Kadim in Baghdad, Khalid Mohammed in Qaim, Iraq, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.