Syria troops, rebels fight near bases in northeast

Associated Press
In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 photo, a sniper takes position on a roof during combat in the neighborhood of Saif Al-Dawlah in Aleppo, Syria. Syrian troops fought intense battles on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 against rebels who are trying to capture two military bases in the northwest and step up their attacks on army compounds elsewhere in the nation torn by civil war, activists said. (AP Photo/Andoni Lubaki)
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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops fought intense battles on Saturday against rebels who are trying to capture two military bases in the northwest and step up their attacks on army compounds elsewhere in the country, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said the rebels destroyed at least one tank near the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. The rebels, who have been battling for weeks to take control of bases in Wadi Deif and Hamdiyeh, are working to cut off supply routes to the compounds, the Observatory said.

Attacks on government bases are a recent focus of fighting in Syria's civil war, which according to the United Nations has left more than 60,000 people dead since the conflict began in March 2011.

Last week, rebels captured the nearby air base of Taftanaz in a significant blow to President Bashar Assad's forces, who increasingly rely on airpower.

The rebels also have been trying to capture other air bases in the northern province of Aleppo, and, according to activists, were attacking the air base of Mannagh near the Turkish border.

In Turkey, state-run Anadolu news agency said Syria's air force targeted a mosque and a school building that was apparently sheltering displaced Syrians in the town of Salqin, some four miles (six kilometers) from the border with Turkey in Idlib province. Dozens of people were killed and wounded.

At least 30 people wounded in the attack were taken across the border to Turkey for treatment, and two died in Turkish hospitals, the news agency said.

The displaced Syrians were eating when the school was attacked, according to Anadolu, who interviewed witnesses who has crossed into the Turkish border province of Hatay. The wounded included women and children, the agency said.

Syria's official news agency SANA said troops had targeted rebel hideouts in Salqin, killing and wounding some of them.

Also in Turkey on Saturday, members of the newly-restructured Syrian opposition held a conference in Istanbul aiming to nominate representatives for a transitional government.

"We have some ideas, some proposals," said one opposition member, Abdul Ahad Astephoa, without mentioning any specifics.

The group, known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was formed in Qatar in November amid international pressure to unite factions within the opposition.

The international envoy tasked with ending Syria's crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, has proposed a cease-fire followed by the formation of a transitional government to run the country until new elections can be held.

Earlier this month, Assad dismissed calls that he step down and vowed to keep fighting. The opposition says that Assad can play no role in a resolution to the conflict.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the government was sending reinforcements to the central city of Homs where rebels have controlled some neighborhoods for more than a year. Residents of Homs, Syria's third largest city, were one of the first to rise up against Assad and many refer to it as "the capital of the revolution."

"It seems they are preparing for a big attack on Homs," Abdul-Rahman said by telephone.

The Observatory and the LCC said troops attacked several suburbs of the capital, Damascus, as well as Homs and the southern rebel-held town of Busra al-Harir. The shelling and air raids targeted the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Daraya and Moadamiyeh where regime forces have been on the offensive for weeks, they said.

Syrian state-run TV said government forces attacked a group a rebels as they met in the town of Boukamal near the Iraqi border, killing some of them.

It said clashes in the northern town of Ras al-Ayn near the Turkish border continued Saturday for the third day between rebels and members of the government-leaning Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD. The Observatory said at least 28 rebels and five PYD fighters have been killed since the combat began.

The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, condemned the latest violence, which killed civilians including children this week in the central village of Haswiyeh, the northern city of Aleppo and near Damascus.

Around 200 civilians were killed this week in government-controlled areas. Most of them died in a strike on a university in Aleppo and in a mass killing in the central town of Haswiyeh. Opposition activists say a pro-government militia torched houses and killed more than 100 people in Haswiyeh.

"UNICEF condemns these latest incidents in the strongest terms, and once again calls on all parties to ensure civilians - and children especially - are spared the effects of the conflict," the organization said in a statement.

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Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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