BEIRUT (AP) — Around 500 Syrian families crossed the border into Lebanon overnight, joining the flood of people trying to escape an offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces in a mountainous region along the frontier, a U.N. official said Thursday.
The new arrivals add to the more than 13,000 people that the U.N. says have found shelter in Lebanon since the Syrian government offensive in the rugged Qalamoun region north of Damascus began last Friday. The influx has left aid agencies scrambling to provide enough shelter for the refugees.
Lebanese authorities have granted aid groups permission to build a temporary transit camp for Syrians for the first time since the uprising began three years ago, said Lisa Abou Khaled, an official with the U.N. refugee agency. She said the U.N. agency put up 21 tents overnight, and will set up an additional 29 by the end of Thursday.
"We're just doing it as an emergency response," she said. "We've always had a number of tents in stock."
Lebanon, which has taken in an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees, has been reluctant to build camps to house Syrians, fearing they will stay permanently. Instead, local communities have taken in many refugees, while others have been left to fend for themselves.
Abou Khaled said that by Wednesday evening, the number of refugees who have arrived in the Lebanese border town of Arsal since last Friday stood at 13,000. She said another 500 families, each on average numbering about six people, arrived overnight.
Also Thursday, the international aid agency Oxfam released a report that highlighted the challenges Syrian refugees face in Lebanon, particularly with mounting debts that are pushing entire families into a cycle of grinding poverty.
The group said refugee families in Lebanon are spending more than twice their monthly average income of $250. It added that many families have exhausted their savings and have resorted to borrowing money as the job market in Lebanon has dried up.
It also said many Syrian children are not going to school because their parents can't afford the additional expenses. Oxfam based its conclusions on a survey of 1,500 people conducted last month.
Syrian government troops launched their long-anticipated offensive in the Qalamoun hills last week in a bid to cut cross-border rebel supply lines and secure the main north-south highway that runs through the region.
On Tuesday, Syrian forces captured the town of Qara, and activists say their next target is likely to be the nearby larger town of Yabroud, a major smuggling hub for rebels.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported fighting Thursday between rebels and government troops in the towns of Nabak and Deir Attiyeh, which are located along the highway between Qara and Yabroud.
The Observatory said the rebel forces were led by fighters from two al-Qaida-linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
The Observatory and the Syrian state news agency SANA also reported that a mortar attack on al-Haj Atef Square in the central city of Homs killed at least three people and wounded 25 others.