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A boy cleans debris near buildings damaged by what activists said were shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, at Yabroud, near Damascus January 3, 2013. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout

Thousands flee Syrian town as ‘major assault’ looms

Thousands of people have fled a rebel-held town in Syria after it was bombed and shelled in an operation that has prompted fears of a major assault by ground troops, the United Nations said on Friday.

The fighting came as peace talks in Geneva neared the end of a second round with the government and opposition sides sticking to their positions and as far from agreement as ever.

Violence has spiraled as each side seeks the upper hand. “Nearly 5,000 people have been killed just since these talks began,” a senior U.S. official said in Geneva on Friday.

Military action in the town of Yabroud, in western Syria near the border with Lebanon, would fit with the government’s aim of securing a corridor linking Damascus with President Bashar al-Assad’s heartland on the Mediterranean coast.

“We have received reports from within Syria that there have been numerous aerial attacks and shelling along with a military build-up around the town, suggesting a major assault by land may be imminent,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.

Some estimates suggested as many as 40,000 to 50,000 people were still in the town with thousands of others fleeing over the last few days, he said.

Electricity was cut off on Wednesday and field hospitals are short of medical supplies as scores of people require urgent treatment, Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.

Failure to allow civilians to leave would amount to “grave violations” of international humanitarian law by Damascus.

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