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Syrian refugees flee for safety through the desert

EASTERN JORDAN (AP) — As evening gathers across a desert plain in eastern Jordan, 80-year-old Muteea Talaa stands with 200 other starved, cold and wet refugees on the Syrian side of a muddy ditch marking the border between the two countries, waiting for a signal from a Jordanian army patrol to cross over.

When the soldier is convinced that it's safe to move, he waves them across: "Proceed, walk over quickly." The refugees — with personal belongings wrapped in bundles on their shoulders — run across the shallow ditch. Then Talaa, now in the back row, frantically screams: "Where is my disabled son?"

Soldiers help her find her 45-year-old son Mohammed, who she says lost his ability to speak as a child. But she was shaken by the experience. "I lost so many loved ones in the war back home and I was afraid to lose my son," she said, as the Syrians wait in the chill of an early evening winter rain to be taken to a processing facility and from there to a refugee camp.

Talaa spoke to reporters on a day-long army-guided tour to the border zone, hundreds of kilometers (miles) east of the Jordanian capital Amman. The Jordanian military did not give the exact locations of their route to avoid having refugees targeted by government forces.

It's deep in the desert, far from the crossing points near southern Syrian towns which refugees have used in the past. But aid workers say more refugees are making the trek to this remote spot because the towns have become more dangerous.

She was among the last batch of 1,000 Syrians to cross into Jordan Thursday. Aid workers said the refugees walked at least 10 kilometers (six miles) through the desert on the last leg of their trip to reach the border.

Syria's civil war, now in its third year, has killed more than 120,000 according to activists and sent more than two million fleeing abroad. Of those, more than 560,000 have come to Jordan, while others have gone to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

Inside Jordan, 120,000 live under plastic tents in Zaatari Camp in Jordan's north, which is usually battered by snowstorms in January. The rest live in existing Jordanian communities, which complain that the newcomers have exhausted their meager resources, like water, health care and education.

Some travel back to Syria when it is safe to do so, returning to Jordan if conditions become more dangerous. In total, there are 45 points along the 378-kilometer (235 mile) Jordanian-Syrian border which the refugees use to enter Jordan, said Brig. Hussein Zyoud, head of the Jordanian border patrols. He said the refugees rarely travel across the official border posts between the two countries, manned on the Syrian side by President Bashar Assad's army.

"This is the main route now because continued fighting to the west has made it increasingly difficult for the people to cross the lines between the government forces and the opposition," said Andrew Harper, the chief of the U.N. refugee agency in Jordan, who was among the aid workers receiving the refugees.

Talaa, a native of eastern Ghouta — a Damascus suburb that has suffered everything from a chemical attack in August to lengthy siege— said she was on the road with her son and grandson for four days. "We were constantly crying back home because we were starving. I left 10 grandsons back home crying because there is no food."

Aboard one vehicle, three-year-old Nasrallah Ahmad wept loudly. "He is crying because he saw the Jordanian soldiers with machineguns and thought they were going to shoot at us like back home," said his mother, who identified herself as Um Alaa, 33, a native of the restive southern Syrian border town of Daraa.

She said that the situation was "miserable" in Daraa with serious shortages of water because the Syrian army blew up water pipes feeding their town. "There are shortages of food, medicine and fuel because many (workers at) shops and gas stations are afraid to be targeted by government snipers," she said. Electricity is available for four hours a day, and sometimes goes off for several days at a time.

A convoy of U.N. and Jordanian army vehicles escorted the refugees to a facility near the local provincial capital of Ruwaishid, where they will spend the four days having their identity checked before they proceed to Zaatari Camp.

Zyoud, the Jordanian border chief, told reporters at an army camp later that Syria's porous southern border neighboring Jordan has seen a 300 percent increase in infiltration and smuggling from last year. Seized items included drugs, pistols, machineguns, stolen cars and tens of thousands of sheep.

But most who cross are simply looking for safety. "God helped me reach this point," said Talaa, still shaking from the desert wind.

Associated Press reporter Omar Akour in Ruwaishid, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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