Syrian warplanes pound rebel positions in north

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria on Thursday welcomed efforts by the United States and Russia to end the country's civil war, as warplanes pounded rebel targets in an offensive to reclaim territory from the opposition.

The strikes came against the backdrop of a new, joint U.S.-Russia effort to bring the sides in the 26-month conflict to the negotiating table before the end of the month. In the first official Syrian reaction to the initiative, Syria's Foreign Ministry said it welcomes the step that could lead to a "national dialogue."

In Israel, security officials said Thursday they have asked Russia to cancel the imminent sale of an advanced air defense system to Syria.

The officials said Israel shared information with the United States in hopes of persuading Russia to halt the planned deal to provide S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Disclosing the deal, the Israeli officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

Israel aircraft evaded Syrian air defenses twice in the past week to strike weapons that it said were to be headed to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Israel has not officially acknowledged the attacks.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said President Bashar Assad's air force attacked rebel positions in Aleppo and Idlib in the north on Thursday. The group said warplanes hit rebels near the Mannagh military air base outside Aleppo.

The rebels stormed the base near the border with Turkey and captured parts of it on Sunday but were later forced to retreat in the face of regime's superior air power.

In neighboring Idlib province, heavy clashes were underway Thursday outside several army bases near the government-controlled provincial capital, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of informants inside Syria.

In Damascus, the state-run SANA news agency said government troops regained control of one more village and some land near the border with Lebanon on Thursday. The agency claimed troops inflicted heavy losses on the rebels in Aleppo and Idlib.

Opposition fighters have struggled to hold on to the territory, frequently complaining to their Western backers that their weapons are no match for Assad's arsenal.

The Obama administration has said it is considering providing weapons to selected units in the armed opposition, following the recent disclosure of a U.S. intelligence assessment suggesting the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

But the U.S. maintains deep reservations about providing direct military assistance to the rebels for fear that advanced weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked groups that have been the most effective fighting force on the opposition's side.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce a new aid package of $100 million to Syrian opposition, U.S. officials said ahead of Kerry's expected announcement in Rome later Thursday.

The money is for humanitarian purposes only and not linked to any decision on arming Syrian rebels.

Washington is looking for ways to halt the conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people since it erupted in March 2011.

On Tuesday, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced in Moscow that they will convene an international conference on Syria with the goal of corralling Assad's government and opposition representatives into peace talks.

Their initiative is identical to a plan, set out in Geneva last year, to bring the Damascus regime and opposition representatives together for talks on an interim government. Each side would be allowed to veto candidates it finds unacceptable.

The Geneva proposal also called for an open-ended cease fire and the formation of a transitional government to run the country until new elections can be held.

Even modest international efforts to halt the fighting have failed as neither side in the Syrian civil war has embraced dialogue, underlining their resolve to prevail on the battlefield.

In the reaction to the U.S.-Russian proposal, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Damascus "welcomes" the step. In a statement carried by state-run news agency, the ministry said that the U.S. should "seriously urge its allies to stop the violence and terrorism" in preparation for a political dialogue.

The statement added that "everyone should know that only the Syrian people decide their future and the country's constitutional system." It was apparently referring to next year's presidential elections, in which Syrian officials have said that Assad will be running again.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said Wednesday it welcomes the U.S.-Russia effort to reach a political solution but that any transition must begin with the departure of Assad and officials in his regime.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Thursday that the government is willing to consider any proposals for a political solution of the conflict, while it retains the right to fight "terrorists," the regime's term for the opposition fighters and their supporters.

Al-Zoubi did not specifically mention the U.S.-Russian initiative in his brief remarks to reporters in Damascus. The comments were carried by SANA.

In Lebanon, a senior security official said several rockets landed Thursday on Lebanese territory, the latest incident of the Syria conflict spilling over the country's volatile borders. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with state regulations. There were no reports of casualties in the incident in the northwestern Lebanese town of Harmel.

Turkey's state-run agency said the country has stationed a team of eight experts to screen injured Syrians at the border to ensure they are not victims of any chemical attacks.

The Anadolu Agency said a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense vehicle, manned by the team, has been deployed at the main Cilvegozu border crossing with Syria.

The team would examine Syrians for signs of chemical agents before sending them to nearby hospitals for treatment, the agency reported Thursday.

Officials in Damascus deny claims the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. The rebels also deny similar allegations.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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