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Rapes, bombings drive half a million refugees out of Syria

The flood of refugees from Syria, driven by rampant bombings and the widespread use of rape as an instrument of terror, threatens to destabilize the Middle East.

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A girl looks up to the sky after hearing the sound of shelling as she sits on a toy pony in an Aleppo playground, in this January 1, 2013 file photo. Refugees fleeing Syria told the International Rescue Committee that they were leaving to escape the rampant rapes and the bombings that often leave children among the dead.

Muzaffar Salman / Reuters / File

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The Syrian government bombed areas around Damascus on Monday as part of its push to keep rebel fighters out of the capital, leaving many children among the dozens killed, anti-regime activists said.

An international aid organization cited such raids, along with rape and widespread destruction, as key factors in the exodus of more than a half-million Syrians to neighboring countries since the conflict began in March 2011.

The International Rescue Committee said it could be "months, if not years" before the refugees can return home and warned that Syria's civil war could enflame tensions in the Middle East.

After nearly two years of violence, it appears unlikely that the war will end soon. Although rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad have made gains in the country's north and east and outside of Damascus, they have yet to seriously challenge his hold on the capital or other parts of the country.

Earlier this month, Assad dismissed calls from the U.S. and others that he step down and vowed to keep fighting until the country is free of "terrorists" — his government's shorthand for rebels.

International diplomacy has done little to bridge the gap.

In a report released Monday, the International Rescue Committee painted a grim picture of what life has become for Syrians in war-torn areas.

Syrians face brutal killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, frequent airstrikes, sexual violence and diminishing medical services, the report said.

The 32-page report, based on interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq in November 2012, said that many who fled the country cited rape as a primary reason.

"Many women and girls relayed accounts of being attacked in public or in their homes, primarily by armed men," the report said. "These rapes, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, often occur in front of family members."

The group did not say if the alleged perpetrators were rebels or government forces.

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