Fighting Intensifies in Northern Syria

Monday, 04 Mar 2013 09:10 AM


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BEIRUT — Syrian rebels launched an offensive to try to seize an air base near the Turkish border and clashed with government forces at a historic mosque in the nation's largest city of Aleppo on Monday as fighting intensified in the northern parts of the country embroiled in a 2-year-old civil war, activists said.

In Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal together warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that they will boost support to rebels fighting to oust him unless he steps down.

They also put the leaders of Iran's leadership on notice that time was running out for a diplomatic resolution to concerns over Tehran's nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the region's harshest critics of Assad's regime.

In his discussions with Kerry, Saud said he stressed the importance of enabling the Syrian people to exercise their "legitimate right to defend itself against the regime's killing machine." Saud also decried the fact that the Assad continued to get weapons from "third parties," a veiled reference to Russia and Iran, which have backed the regime through the conflict.

The Obama administration has resisted appeals from the Syrian opposition to provide it with weapons and ammunitions over fears that they could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists who have gained support among Assad opponents.

But Kerry sidestepped a question about whether the arms reportedly being supplied to the rebels by Saudi Arabia and others were a concern. Instead, he criticized Iran, Hezbollah and Russia by name for giving weaponry to the Assad regime.

Monday's fighting came as a pro-government newspaper reported that opposition fighters killed 115 policemen and wounded another 50 in a battle Sunday over a police academy in the north. The daily Al-Watan reported that "terrorists committed a massacre" at the academy near the northern city of Aleppo.

The report came a day after the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels seized the academy in Khan al-Asal after entering the sprawling government complex with captured tanks. The Observatory said the battle left at least 120 soldiers and 80 rebels dead.

The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule, then turned into a full-blown civil war after the rebels took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations estimates that 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Assad maintains his troops are fighting "terrorists" and Islamic extremists seeking to destroy Syria, and he accuses the West and its Gulf Arab allies of supporting them in achieving their goal.

The Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center said rebels began an offensive — the latest of several in the past few months — to try capture Mannagh air base. Rebels have been trying to seize control of the helicopter base and entered parts of it last month before they were pushed back by troops.

The Observatory said clashes also were raging inside Aleppo's landmark 12th century Umayyad Mosque in the walled Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mosque was heavily damaged last year just weeks after a fire gutted the city's famed medieval market.

It said regime forces were trying to capture the mosque that was taken by rebels recently.

Since July, government forces and rebels seeking to topple Assad have been battling over Aleppo, the country's largest city and a major prize in the civil war. While rebels have gradually expanded the amount of turf under their control, seven months of street fighting, airstrikes and shelling have left much of the city, considered one of Syria's most beautiful, in ruins.

On Saturday, the Syrian army command said it captured areas in Aleppo opening a road between the government-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo's international airport. The airport, the country's second largest, was subjected to an offensive by rebels for weeks.

The Observatory said rebels on Monday blew up the Assan bridge near the Aleppo's international airport. An amateur video showed rebels blowing up the bridge creating a thick black of smoke amid chants of "God is great."

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees reported violence on other areas including the northern province of Raqqa, central provinces of Hama and Homs, the southern region of Daraa and Damascus and its suburbs.

In Jordan, the country's national air carrier said it has changed the route of its flights between Amman and Beirut to avoid flying over Syria.

Royal Jordanian said in a statement that its flights from Amman to Beirut now head to the southern of Jordan, into the Egyptian airspace and then over the Mediterranean Sea before landing in Beirut.

Amer Hadidi, president and chief executive officer of Royal Jordanian, said the move reflects "the airline's commitment to the safety of passengers and security of operations, even though this procedure involves additional costs to the company."

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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