Fighting precedes scheduled start of Syria truce

Associated Press
In this Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter watches over an enemy position as rebel fighters belonging to the Liwa Al Tawhid group carry out a military operation at the Moaskar front line, one of the battlefields in the Karmal Jabl neighborhood, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras)
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BEIRUT (AP) — Heavy fighting between forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebels preceded the dawn start of a proposed truce Friday, activists said, dimming prospects for a break in the bloody 19-month civil war.

Battles were still in progress at daybreak Friday, the beginning of a four-day Muslim holiday that was to coincide with the cease-fire, proposed by U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and endorsed by the Security Council.

If it takes effect, it would be the first pause in the fighting that has taken tens of thousands of lives. Earlier attempts by mediators to bring about a cease-fire failed, though elements of both sides had accepted truce proposals.

The Syrian regime accepted the cease-fire but left itself some significant loopholes, saying it would respond to rebel attacks. Some opposition groups said they would abide by the truce, but several rebel commanders dismissed it as irrelevant.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists, said the latest clashes took place in the central province of Homs, in Deir el-Zour in the country's east and in the city of Aleppo. At least four rebels were killed and six soldiers were wounded in overnight fighting, the Observatory said.

The group said three people were also wounded when troops tried to disperse protesters after Friday prayers in the southern province of Deraa, where the uprising began.

Rebels claimed major gains in the key battleground of Aleppo Thursday, pushing into predominantly Christian and Kurdish neighborhoods that had previously been held by pro-Assad forces in northern part of the city, the country's largest.

The short holiday cease-fire was all a divided international community could agree on after the failure of a more ambitious plan for an open-ended truce and political transition talks by Brahimi's predecessor, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, in April.

The truce appeared shaky from the outset, since neither side has shown an interest in laying down arms, pushing instead for military gains.

Also, it wasn't clear when exactly the cease-fire was supposed to begin, and there were no arrangements for monitoring compliance.

Brahimi has not said what was supposed to happen after four days, an ominous sign, since Assad and opposition leaders disagree sharply on how to proceed. Assad refuses to resign, while some opposition leaders say his departure is a prerequisite for any political talks. The fragmented opposition factions disagree over whether to negotiate with Assad at all.

Since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, more than 35,000 people have been killed, including more than 8,000 government troops, according to activists.

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