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Two rival Syrian rebel groups in the northern town of Azaz have agreed a ceasefire.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), linked to al-Qaeda, seized the town on Wednesday from the larger Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Fighting between rebel groups has raised fears of a war within a war.
The clashes come ahead of a deadline, on Saturday, for Syria to provide a list of its chemical weapons facilities as part of a US-Russian deal for the country to destroy its deadly arsenal.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, is currently holding talks in Damascus about the deal.
But the agreement still faces many hurdles – including the differing opinions of the US and Russia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said a “definitive” UN report had proved that the Syrian government was behind a deadly chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta on August 21.
But Damascus – backed by Moscow – insists that rebel forces carried out the attack.
The West also wants any UN resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons to include the threat of military force in the result of non-compliance – but Russia objects to any mention of this.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Fox News, said it could take about a year to destroy Syria’s chemical stockpiles and could cost about $1 billion.
Under the ceasefire deal in Azaz the two rebel sides have agreed to exchange prisoners and hand back property.
Two rival Syrian rebel groups in the northern town of Azaz have agreed a ceasefire
It is unclear whether the ceasefire will have an impact on clashes between the groups elsewhere in the country.
Analysts say there is more chance that the US and other Western powers may arm the Free Syrian Army if it shows a distinct separation from the Islamists.
The fighting in Azaz began when a wounded rebel – either from ISIS or from an allied group, al-Muhajireen – was taken to a field clinic and, while there, he was filmed as part of a fundraising exercise.
The wounded fighter demanded the film, and called some of his friends to come and help him.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels from a unit called the Northern Storm brigade were guarding the field clinic, and there was a confrontation which ended up with ISIS launching a full attack on the town, pushing out the Northern Storm brigade.
ISIS is reported to have made a number of arrests of activists, journalists and even Sharia court officials during the time it controlled Azaz.
One eyewitness inside the town said no-one was smoking on the streets – tobacco is forbidden according to strict Islamist doctrine.
While the Azaz violence seems to have been the result of a particular set of circumstances rather than a long-planned offensive, our correspondent says there is a record of skirmishes between the Jihadis and FSA brigades for control of the border crossings into Turkey.
Meanwhile, the party of Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil insists he was misquoted in Friday’s edition of the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
Qadri Jamil reportedly told the paper that the civil war had reached stalemate, with neither government forces nor the rebels strong enough to win – and that the government would use proposed talks in Geneva to call for a ceasefire.
But the People’s Will Party said the Guardian journalist was ”neither precise nor professional” about what he quoted Qadri Jamil as saying.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said Tehran is ready to help broker peace in Syria, as part of what he called his country’s “constructive engagement” policy with other nations.
In an article in the Washington Post newspaper, Hassan Rouhani wrote: “We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates.”
Correspondents say the article is the latest signal that Hassan Rouhani wants to improve Iran’s relationship with the US and other countries that believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Hundreds of Syrians have been killed early this morning on the outskirts of Damascus following chemical weapons attacks, Syrian opposition activists say.
Rockets with toxic agents were launched at the suburbs of the Ghouta region early on Wednesday as part of a major bombardment on rebel forces, they say.
The Syrian army says the accusations have been fabricated to cover up rebel losses.
The main opposition alliance said that more than 1,000 people were killed by the attacks.
Activist networks also reported death tolls in the hundreds, but these could not be independently confirmed.
It is also not clear how many died in the bombardment of the sites and how many deaths were due to any exposure to toxic substances.
Images showed dozens of bodies with no visible signs of injuries, including small children, laid out on the floor of a clinic.
In a statement, the army described the accusations of chemical weapons use as grave, and stressed the military’s right to fight what it described as terrorism in Syria.
It accused the opposition of fabricating the accusations to divert attention from the huge losses its forces had suffered recently.
Hundreds of Syrians have been killed early this morning on the outskirts of Damascus following chemical weapons attacks
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and French President Francois Hollande called for UN inspectors to be allowed access to the area and said Britain and France would raise the issue at the UN.
If confirmed, the attacks would mark a “shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria”, William Hague said.
The Arab League echoed the call for the inspectors to go to the site, while Saudi Arabia called for the UN Security Council to convene immediately to discuss the matter.
The attack took place as part of a heavy government bombardment of the region surrounding Damascus, where government forces have been trying to drive out rebel forces.
Casualties were reported in the areas of Irbin, Duma and Muadhamiya among others, activists said.
Footage uploaded to YouTube from the scene by activists shows many people being treated in makeshift hospitals.
The videos show victims, including many children, having convulsions. Others are apparently immobile and have difficulty breathing.
“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths,” a nurse at a Duma medical facility, Bayan Baker, told Reuters.
The number of casualties is much higher than in previous allegations of chemical weapons attacks.
The Sana news agency said the reports of the attack were “baseless”, quoting a “media source”.
The reports were “an attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties”, Sana said.
The head of the inspection mission, Ake Sellstrom, said he had seen TV footage of the latest attack but nothing more.
“It sounds like something that should be looked into,” Ake Sellstrom told the Swedish TT news agency.
Ake Sellstrom said that whether his team went to the scene would depend on whether any UN member state went to the UN Secretary General and asked them to.
The inspectors arrived on Sunday and are due to investigate three other locations, including the northern town of Khan al-Assal, where some 26 people were killed in March.
Both the rebels and government forces have accused each other of using chemical weapons during the conflict.
It has not been possible to independently verify the claims.
In July 2012, the Syrian government implicitly admitted what had long been suspected by experts in the field of chemical weapons proliferation – that Syria had stocks of chemical weapons.
Experts believe it has large undeclared stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent.
Damascus said the weapons, stored and secured by the armed forces, would never be used “inside Syria”, but could be used against an external attack.
Syrian army has fully captured Khalidiya district that was a key rebel stronghold in the central city of Homs, state media report.
The Sana news agency said the military had “restored security and stability to the neighborhood of Khalidiya”.
Activists reported clashes in Khalidiya on Monday morning, but said that most of the area was under army control.
The announcement comes a month after troops launched an offensive to oust rebels from Syria’s third largest city.
Homs has been one of the focuses of a two-year nationwide uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, in which the UN says more than 100,000 people have died.
Correspondents say the capture of Khalidiya would add further impetus to the counter-offensive by government troops and their allies, which saw the nearby town of Qusair fall in June.
On Monday, an unnamed army officer told Syrian state television: “Today, we can report having complete control of the area of Khalidiya.”
Syrian army has fully captured Khalidiya district that was a key rebel stronghold in the central city of Homs,
“That was a victory of all our fighters and the whole Syrian Army and especially our dear leader, Bashar al-Assad. And God willing, we will get rid of the terrorists in the entire country and the future will be free of killings and under the control of the army.”
However, UK-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights cast doubt on the claim.
While the group acknowledged that government forces were in control of most of Khalidiya, it said fighting was continuing on Monday.
“Clashes took place between rebels and regime forces, supported by Hezbollah and National Defence Forces, in the southern parts of the Khalidiya neighborhood,” it said.
“Regime forces are bombarding parts, and military reinforcements are arriving as advancing regime forces try to establish full control.”
Opposition activists told the AFP news agency that about 90% of Khalidiya was now controlled by the army. One told the Associated Press that the battle for the district was “almost over”.
On Sunday, the Arabic TV station al-Mayadeen, which is seen as close to the Syrian government, broadcast what it said was footage of Khalidiya, showing heavily damaged buildings and piles of rubble.
It also showed pictures of the interior of the historic Khaled bin Walid mosque, a focal point for anti-government protesters. Troops reportedly seized it on Saturday, days after activists accused them of firing shells at the tomb of Khaled bin Walid, a revered figure in Islam.
Only the Old City of Homs and a few other districts are still held by the opposition. On Monday, government jets bombed the Bab Hud district of the Old City, just south of Khalidiya, according to the Syrian Observatory.
Syrian army has killed 13 members of the same family, mostly women and children, activist groups say.
Some reports say some of the victims were burnt alive, in the incident in Bayda near the coastal city of Banias.
The family members were said to be from a mostly Sunni village, but in an area where government supporters have been accused of trying to clear out Sunnis.
Syrian army has killed 13 members of the same family, mostly women and children, in Bayda
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – which relies on a network on opposition activists on the ground – at least three men from the Fattouh family in Bayda were shot dead by government forces and militia in the latest violence.
Women and children from the same family were then crowded into one room in a house, where they were all killed, it said.
Some reports said they were burnt alive when the house was set on fire, others, that they were shot beforehand.
The reported deaths came after clashes in Banias in which some loyalists died.
The village of Bayda is described as a pocket of Sunni Muslims in the coastal province of Tartus, which is dominated by President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Both Bayda and Banias were the scene of what were described as sectarian massacres of Sunni families in May, in which more than 100 people died.
UN says more than 90,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising again Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. A further 1.7 million have been forced to seek shelter in neighboring countries.
According to Israeli military sources, the Syrian army has taken control of an UN-monitored crossing in the Golan Heights that had been overrun by rebel forces.
Tanks and armored vehicles were used in the fighting at Quneitra, near Israeli-held territory.
Austria has said it will withdraw its peacekeepers from the Golan Heights because of the fighting.
It comes a day after Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants retook the key town of Qusair.
The involvement of Hezbollah and the upsurge of fighting near the ceasefire line with Israel in the Golan have both raised fears that the conflict could spread across Syria’s borders.
Rebels seized the crossing near the town of Quneitra earlier on Thursday, with explosions and heavy shelling rocking the area.
But an Israeli military source said Syrian government forces retook the symbolically significant position hours later, and that it was now relatively quiet in the area.
Two UN peacekeepers were wounded as fighting raged around the crossing and Quneitra.
Austria said it would withdraw its soldiers because the threat had “reached an unacceptable level”.
Austrian troops make up more than a third of the more than 900-strong UN force monitoring the demilitarized zone and Quneitra – the only open crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Israel expressed regret at Austria’s decision, and said it hoped it would not lead to “further escalation” in the region.
The UN said the withdrawal of Austrian troops would affect the mission’s operational capacity and it would look for replacements.
Syrian army has taken control of an UN-monitored crossing in the Golan Heights that had been overrun by rebel forces
Croatia, Canada and Japan had already withdrawn their contingents in the Golan because of the conflict in Syria.
Syria’s deployment of tanks in the demilitarized zone violates ceasefire agreements in place since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.
Israel captured part of the plateau in 1967 and later annexed it in a move that has never been internationally recognized.
Israeli officials have voiced fears the civil war in Syria could spill over their borders. They are worried the Golan Heights could be used to launch attacks against Israel – either by Islamist extremists fighting for the rebels, or by Hezbollah militants fighting on the government side.
Hezbollah’s growing role in the conflict was highlighted by its involvement in the battle for Qusair, which government forces recaptured on Wednesday after a bitter siege.
Hezbollah is a political and military organization in Lebanon made up mainly of Shia Muslims.
It emerged with backing from Iran in the early 1980s when it fought Israeli forces in southern Lebanon and has always been a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Its involvement in Syria has heightened sectarian tensions across the region, and the US has called for it to withdraw.
Late on Wednesday several rockets landed in the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek inside Lebanon – after rebel threats to strike at Hezbollah on its home turf.
Qusair lies only 6 miles from the Lebanese border and is close to important supply routes for both the government and rebels.
As the battle for Qusair raged, fighting was continuing in most other parts of Syria, especially around the capital Damascus, where regime forces are trying to push the rebels back from the suburbs.
More than 80,000 people have been killed in Syria and more than 1.5 million have fled the country since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, according to UN estimates.
International efforts to resolve Syria’s conflict continue, but the US and Russia have failed to set a date for proposed peace talks.
Meanwhile France has said that growing proof of chemical weapons use in Syria “obliges the international community to act”.
However, President Francois Hollande cautioned: “We can only act within the framework of international law.”
Syrian army has taken full control of the strategic town of Qusair, state TV and the rebels say.
Qusair, near the Lebanese border, has been the centre of fighting for more than two weeks between rebels and Syrian troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Syrian state TV said a large number of rebels had died and many had surrendered.
The rebels said they withdrew overnight in the face of a massive assault.
Earlier, the military leader of the main rebel umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army, said his fighters were prepared to take the conflict inside Lebanon in pursuit of Hezbollah fighters.
General Selim Idriss of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – the main umbrella rebel group – said Hezbollah fighters were “invading” Syria and Lebanon was doing nothing to stop them.
Qusair lies just 6 miles from the Lebanese border and along major supply routes.
Syrian pro-government forces, including Hezbollah fighters, have been battling rebels for control of the town for more than two weeks.
But on Wednesday, Syria’s Sana state news agency said the “heroic armed forces have returned security and stability to all of the town”.
Sana said a large number of “terrorists”, as the state refers to the rebels, had been killed and many had surrendered. It said the army was now destroying barricades and weapons caches and searching the town for explosives.
The army said the victory was “a clear message to all those who share in the aggression on Syria … that we will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land”.
“We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us. … Their fate is surrender or death,” it said.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV reported “widespread collapse” of the rebel forces in the town, while one Hezbollah fighter told Reuters news agency: “We did a sudden surprise attack in the early hours and entered the town. They escaped.”
Syrian army has taken full control of the strategic town of Qusair
In a statement also quoted by Reuters, the rebels said: “In face of this huge arsenal and lack supplies and the blatant intervention of Hezbollah… tens of fighters stayed behind and ensured the withdrawal of their comrades along with the civilians.”
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the conflict, said Hezbollah fighters had “overrun” Qusair after an “intense bombardment cover overnight by regime forces, which continued until dawn today”.
“Reports indicate that the rebel forces retreated from the city due to lack of ammunition and men, this comes despite the many promises that supplies would reach the rebels,” it said on its Facebook page.
It also expressed concern for the more than 1,200 people it said were injured in Qusair, and urged the Red Cross to go in.
Last week, the Red Cross said it was “alarmed” by the worsening humanitarian situation and appealed for immediate aid access. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem reportedly said last week that the agency would be allowed in once military operations were over.
According to new reports, although there are pockets of rebel resistance to the north of Qusair, the government is hailing its recapture as a strategic victory.
The move is also of symbolic importance in the run-up to a proposed peace conference as neither side wants to go into the talks looking weak.
Russia and the US are meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to try to arrange a date and other details of the conference. But it remains unclear whether it will go ahead as the Syrian opposition has neither confirmed it will attend nor established a credible delegation.
More than 80,000 people have been killed in Syria and more than 1.5 million have fled the country since an uprising against Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, according to UN estimates.
The UN reported on Tuesday that the war had reached “new levels of brutality”, with evidence of massacres and children being taken hostage of forced to witness – sometimes participate in – atrocities.
There is also growing evidence that chemical weapons have been deployed in the conflict.
France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday that samples taken from Syria and tested in France showed the presence of sarin, and that there was “no doubt that it’s the regime and its accomplices” that were responsible.
Laurent Fabius did not specify where the samples had been collected, but French media reported it had been from the northern town of Saraqeb.
The UK also says it has tested samples which give evidence of the use of sarin in Syria.
Both the Syrian government and the rebels have in the past accused each other of using the weapons.
Strategic town of Qusair:
- Estimated population of 30,000 people
- Up to 10,000 people have fled to neighboring towns and 1,500 people are wounded, the UN says
- Some 23 villages and 12 farms west of Qusair are reportedly inhabited by Lebanese Shia
- Near the main route from Damascus to port of Tartous, a gateway to the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect
Syrian opposition National Coalition has chosen Ghassan Hitto as the prime minister to head a government for rebel-held regions.
Ghassan Hitto is a Damascus-born IT expert who spent decades in the US. He was elected at a meeting of coalition leaders in Istanbul in Turkey.
His first task will be to form a government to oversee services in areas captured from government forces.
Meanwhile, the US and France denounced a Syrian airstrike on the Lebanese border as a “violation of sovereignty”.
Reports from Lebanon say Syrian aircraft fired four rockets at the border between the two countries, near the Lebanese town of Arsal on Monday.
There were no casualties from the raid. Lebanese officials had earlier said it was not clear whether the rockets had landed inside Lebanese territory.
The US described the attack as a “significant escalation” of the conflict. France said the raid constituted “a new and serious violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty”.
In Monday’s vote in Istanbul, Ghassan Hitto won with 35 out of 48 votes, in what coalition leaders described as a “transparent, democratic” election.
But some senior coalition leaders are reported to have withdrawn from the vote in protest over Ghassan Hitto’s lack of military experience.
Last November, the 50-year-old moved from Texas to Turkey to help co-ordinate aid to rebel-held areas.
Syrian opposition National Coalition has chosen Ghassan Hitto as the prime minister to head a government for rebel-held regions
Earlier, the commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army said his group would work “under the umbrella” of any new government.“Any institutions not following this government would be considered to be acting illegitimately and would be prosecuted,” Gen Selim Idriss Idriss told AFP news agency.
Large swathes of northern Syria have been seized by rebels in recent months.
They are currently administered by a patchwork of local councils and armed groups who have been running some institutions, such as courts and prisons.
But reports say basic supplies such as electricity and water are limited.
Also on Monday, the US said it would not stand in the way of other countries arming Syrian rebels.
Last week saw the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, which initially began as a wave of peaceful protests but which is now often described as a civil war.
An estimated 70,000 people have been killed and more than one million people have fled Syria since the uprising began.
Syria has formally complained to the United Nations over a reported Israeli attack within its borders.
Syria’s army said Israeli jets had targeted a military research centre north-west of Damascus on Wednesday, killing two people and wounding five.
It denied reports that trucks carrying weapons bound for Lebanon were hit.
Russia has called the attack unacceptable, while a Syrian official and Iranian deputy minister have suggested there could be retaliation.
The Syrian army statement about the incident, carried on state media, said Israeli fighter jets had carried out a direct strike on a scientific research centre in Jamraya.
Meanwhile Lebanese security sources, Western diplomats and Syrian rebels say an arms convoy near Lebanon’s border was targeted. A US official attested to the strike, saying the lorries were carrying Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles.
Israel has declined to comment.
The latest developments have struck a country in turmoil. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to cling to power despite a 22-month conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people.
Syria’s foreign ministry summoned the UN commander in the Golan to deliver its formal protest, saying Israel’s action violated the 1974 disengagement agreement between the two sides, who remain technically at war.
A UN observer force has been in place in the Golan since 1974, with the task of providing “an area of separation and for two equal zones of limited forces and armaments on both sides of the area”.
An Israeli air strike on Syria could cause a major diplomatic incident, analysts say, as Iran has said it will treat any Israeli attack on its ally Syria as an attack on itself.
Iran’s foreign minister condemned the alleged air strike as an “overt assault based on the West’s policy” to undermine stability in Syria.
“The Zionists got ahead of themselves in trying to cover up the successes of the Syrian government and nation in maintaining the existing government and restoring stability and security,” Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency.
Iran’s Fars news agency quoted the Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as saying the raid would have “grave consequences for [the major Israeli city of] Tel Aviv”.
Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali said Damascus could take a “surprise” decision to retaliate.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said: “If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the UN Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it.”
Syria has formally complained to the United Nations over a reported Israeli attack within its borders
Relations between Russia and Israel have been improving in recent years as trade and economic ties have grown stronger.
But Moscow is a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad, which would explain its concern at the reports.
The Syrian army statement said the Jamraya centre – which was focused on “raising our level of resistance and self-defence” – was damaged in the attack, and specifically denied reports that an arms convoy had been hit.
It said “armed terrorist gangs” – a term the government uses to describe rebel groups – had tried and failed repeatedly to capture the same facility in recent months.
Some reports suggest the facility could be Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, known by its French acronym CERS, believed to be the state organization responsible for developing biological and chemical weapons.
The Lebanese military and internal security forces have not confirmed the reports of an attack on an arms convoy.
But they say there has been increased activity by Israeli warplanes over Lebanon in the past week, and particularly on Tuesday and the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Israel has voiced fears that Syrian missiles and chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militants such as the Lebanese Shia militant group, Hezbollah.
Correspondents say Israel is also concerned that Hezbollah could obtain anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, thus strengthening its ability to respond to Israeli air strikes.
Israel believes Syria received a battery of SA-17s from Russia after an alleged Israeli air strike in 2007 that destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, analysts say.
The US government said in 2008 that the reactor was “not intended for peaceful purposes”.
Hezbollah said Wednesday’s target was the Jamraya centre, condemning the attack as “an attempt to thwart Arab military capabilities” and pledging to stand by its ally Bashar al-Assad.
The reported attack came days after Israel moved its Iron Dome defence system to the north of the country.
Israel has also joined the US in expressing concern that Syria’s presumed chemical weapons stockpile could be taken over by militant groups.
At least 90 people have been killed in a government air strike on a bakery in the central Syrian province of Hama, opposition activists say.
The incident took place in Halfaya, a town recently captured by rebels.
If activists’ reports of 90 deaths are confirmed, this would be one of the deadliest air strikes of the civil war.
Rebels have been fighting President Bashar al-Assad for 21 months, with opposition groups saying more than 44,000 people have been killed.
The latest violence comes as the joint United Nations-Arab League special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, arrived in Damascus to discuss ways to end the unrest.
One activist in Halfaya, Samer al-Hamawi, told Reuters news agency: “There is no way to really know yet how many people were killed. When I got there, I could see piles of bodies all over the ground.
“We hadn’t received flour in around three days so everyone was going to the bakery today, and lots of them were women and children. I still don’t know yet if my relatives are among the dead.”
At least 90 people have been killed in a government air strike on a bakery in the central Syrian province of Hama
Unverified video footage purportedly of the incident’s aftermath showed graphic images of bloody bodies strewn on a road outside a partially destroyed building.
Rescuers were trying to remove some of the victims buried beneath piles of bricks and rubble.
Several badly damaged motorbikes could be seen scattered near the site of the attack which had drawn a number of armed men to the area.
Rebels of the Free Syrian Army have been making a concerted push recently to take areas of Hama province.
Five days ago they declared Halfaya a “liberated area” after taking over army positions there.
The rebels want to take control of the whole of Hama and link up the territory they control. As has happened many times before, he says, the government has hit back with massive firepower at the areas it has lost.
The UK-based opposition activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there had been other air strikes on Sunday, including one on the town of Safira in northern Aleppo province, which killed 13 people.
The Observatory also reported that jets had struck the town of Saqba, just north of Damascus.
Meanwhile Lakhdar Brahimi, on his third trip to Damascus since taking the post, arrived overland from Beirut because of fighting near Damascus airport.
He is expected to meet Syria’s foreign minister and President Assad.
However, Lakhdar Brahimi has made little progress on a peace process so far and it is unclear what new ideas he may be bringing.
The rebels now have a clear sense of victory and will not call off their attacks while they feel success is imminent.
He says the rebels’ primary demand is for President Bashar al-Assad to go and, should that happen, the international community is hoping there may be a chance for negotiations for a peaceful transfer of power.
Turkish civilian planes are no longer allowed to fly over Syria, Damascus has said, amid growing tensions between the two neighboring countries.
The ban took effect at midnight on Saturday.
This comes just days after Turkey intercepted a Syrian-bound plane, claiming it carried Russian-made munitions for the Syrian army.
Syria has described the claim as a lie, challenging Ankara to put the seized goods on public view.
The Syrian foreign ministry said its ban on Turkish flights was in retaliation for a similar move from Ankara.
Turkey has not announced such a measure, although it has said it will continue to ground Syrian civilian planes it suspects are carrying military cargo.
Tensions have been recently rising between the two countries after a series of cross-border incidents.
Last week, there were several days of firing across the border after five Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian shelling.
Turkey’s government has backed the Syrian opposition and called for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad.
In Syria itself, there were reports on Saturday that rebels had shot down a Syrian military jet outside Aleppo – the town at the centre of recent fighting.
Footage posted online showed the burning wreckage of what appeared to be an aircraft, but the claim has not been independently verified.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has accused the government of President bashar al-Assad of dropping cluster bombs – which are banned by more than 100 countries – into populated areas.
The group said there was a number of credible reports that the number of cluster bomb strikes had increased dramatically in recent days.
Syria refuses to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of such weapons.
In a separate development, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul that the UN’s failure to act in Syria gave President Assad the green light to kill tens or hundreds of people every day.
Turkey may not be at war with Syria, but it is now increasingly involved in its neighbor’s conflict.
Recep Tayip Erdogan’s comments come as the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, had talks in Istanbul with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to hear Ankara’s perspective on the crisis.
No breakthroughs were expected, and none were reported after the meeting.
Four Syrian military guards were killed after suicide attackers drove vehicle bombs into the military HQ in the heart of Damascus, officials say.
State TV quoted army sources saying that 14 others were hurt in the attacks, contradicting earlier official accounts that said no one had died.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it had carried out the attack, but did not mention suicide bombings.
State TV broadcast footage of a minibus slowing before exploding at the HQ.
Suicide attackers drove vehicle bombs into the military HQ in the heart of Damascus
Gunfire reverberated around the city for hours after the bombings, as rebels fought with soldiers at the compound.
Official media said “terrorist attackers” had opened fire inside the perimeter of the compound and in nearby streets, and security forces had confronted them.
State TV said those killed were guards at the compound, and both civilian and military personnel had been wounded.
Witnesses said the blasts ignited a fire that engulfed much of the main building that houses the army’s General Staff.
State media insisted earlier that no senior officers were hurt.
The blasts happened just before 07:00 local time close to one of the city’s busiest areas, Umayyad Square, which is dominated by government buildings.
Roads leading to the area were blocked off as the authorities dealt with the aftermath.
Diplomats living close to the area said the blasts were the biggest they had heard for months.
Buildings more than 1 km (half a mile) away shook violently under the force of the explosions.
The staff command compound represents the heart of the Syrian army.
And the attack comes days after FSA announced it had moved its command from Turkey to Syria in an apparent attempt to bolster its fight against regime forces.
Damascus resident Jean-Pierre Duthion said his entire building shook and windows were shattered.
“We all ran into the corridor, in the place without windows or anything, and we were just waiting until it stopped,” he said.
Syrian opposition activists say they have shot down a military helicopter over the capital, Damascus.
The Free Syrian Army said the aircraft had been firing at people in the north-eastern district of Jobar, and that it had crashed in neighboring Qabun.
State television confirmed that a helicopter had come down in Qabun.
On Sunday, opposition activists said government forces had massacred more than 300 people during their assault on the south-western suburb of Darayya.
Video footage and photographs have emerged, showing scores of bodies, including those of women and children.
Syrian opposition activists say they have shot down a military helicopter over Damascus
State media blamed the opposition for the killings and said Darayya had been “cleansed of terrorist remnants”.
The chairman of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said the killings might constitute a war crime.
According to opposition activists, the military helicopter was shot down as it was bombarding Jobar, as heavy fighting broke out between rebels and government forces.
Witnesses told the Reuters news agency the helicopter burst into flames after being hit by a projectile during an exchange of fire and crashed in a narrow residential street in Qabun.
“It was flying overhead the eastern part of the city and firing all morning. The rebels had been trying to hit it for about an hour, and finally they did,” said Abu Bakr, a local activist.
Activists posted video footage online which appears to show a burning helicopter crashing to the ground. Rebels can be heard shouting: “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest).”
State TV confirmed that a helicopter had crashed near the al-Ghufran mosque in Qabun, though it did not say if it had been shot down.
A spokesman for the FSA’s Badr Battalion in Damascus, Omar al-Qabuni, told the AFP news agency that the body of the pilot had been found.
“It was in revenge for the Darayya massacre,” he added.
The FSA also claimed to have shot down a Mig-23 fighter jet on 13 August in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour.
The helicopter appears to have been taking part in an increasingly fierce attempt by government forces to regain control of the capital’s suburbs, and heavy clashes are said to have erupted after it came down.
On Sunday, military helicopters were firing rockets at Jobar and the neighboring districts of Zamalka and Irbin, activists said.
Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad has reiterated his claim that a “foreign” conspiracy is behind the uprising in Syria and promised that he would not allow it to succeed “whatever the price might be”.
“What is happening right now is not just a plot directed against Syria but the region as a whole, of which Syria is a foundational stone,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency, Sana.
The United Nations refugee agency says that more than 200,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries as the conflict has intensified.
The UNHCR said the figure was already more than its projection of 185,000 for the end of this year.
About 30,000 arrived in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan in the past week.
Meanwhile, activists say Syrian army tanks have reached the centre of the Damascus suburb of Darayya, after shelling killed about 20 people.
The reported offensive is part of a government military campaign launched this week to regain control of outlying areas of the capital.
The United Nations refugee agency says that more than 200,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries as the conflict has intensified
The violence in Syria has taken a toll on civilians, with more than 200,000 registering with the UNHCR in neighboring countries since security forces began suppressing pro-democracy protests in March 2011.
“We are now at a much higher level of 202,512 refugees in the surrounding region,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told a news conference in Geneva on Friday.
“In Jordan, a record 2,200 people crossed the border overnight and were received at Zaatari camp in the north,” he added.
The total reflects an increase of about 30,000 in the past week, but also takes into account a change in the way refugees are counted in Jordan.
Adrian Edwards said the deteriorating security situation in Lebanon, where 51,000 refugees are registered, was “hampering our work to help refugees fleeing Syria’s conflict, though operations are continuing”.
There are also thought to be more than 1.2 million internally displaced people in Syria, and 2.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance.
The main battle fronts are currently in the second city of Aleppo and in Damascus, where the government this week launched a fierce military offensive to crush rebel resistance on the outskirts of the capital.
Opposition activists said troops backed by tanks had entered the south-western suburb of Darayya on Friday afternoon, and had been seen on al-Thawra Street, in the centre.
“The rebels have mostly slipped away. The fear now is that the army will round up young men and summarily execute them, as it did in Muadhamiya,” activist Abu Kinan told the Reuters news agency, referring to a nearby suburb where the bodies of as many as 40 men shot at close range were reportedly found in buildings after troops pulled out.
Earlier, the army had used multiple rocket launchers located at the nearby Talat Qawqaba military base and artillery at Mezzeh military airport to bombard Darayya.
It has targeted the town for several days, shelling it from afar and clearing it with ground troops, trying to sweep it clear of rebels.
But rebel fighters are using classic guerrilla tactics, making it difficult for the army to defeat them despite its use of massive force.
Activists said at least 70 people had been killed in Darayya in the past 72 hours, most of them civilians.
Opposition sources also reported fighting on Friday in other suburbs of Damascus, as well as heavy shelling on several districts of Aleppo.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Kuwait have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon amid signs that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into its western neighbor.
The four Arab states urged immediate action after a string of kidnappings of Sunni Muslims by a powerful Shia clan.
They were retaliating for the abduction of a clan member by rebels in Damascus.
Meanwhile, a summit of Islamic countries meeting in Mecca has suspended Syria’s membership.
The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation’s secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, said the body had no room for a regime that kills its own people.
Correspondents say the move further isolates President Bashar al-Assad after the Arab League suspended Syria last November.
Lebanese citizens were further caught up in the Syrian crisis on Wednesday when warplanes struck the town of Azaz north of Aleppo, reportedly killing 30 people.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon amid signs that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into its western neighbor
Among those reported wounded in the attack close to Syria’s border with Turkey were seven Lebanese hostages held by the rebels since May. Four more hostages were said to be missing after the building they were in was hit.
After unconfirmed TV reports that the four had died, rioters were said to have burned tyres on the main road to Beirut airport and an Air France flight switched routes to Jordan “for security reasons”.
The al-Meqdad clan said it had abducted more than 20 people it claimed were connected to Syrian rebels. A video broadcast by a pro-Syrian TV channel showed what it said were two of the men, apparently including a Free Syrian Army captain.
Although most of the men abducted were Syrians, a Turkish businessman and a Saudi national were also reported to be among those seized.
Syrian rebels say the man they seized in Damascus was fighting for the Syrian government on behalf of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement.
A video of Hassan Salim al-Meqdad was released by his captors on Tuesday in which the captive, surrounded by three masked gunmen, says he was one of 1,500 Hezbollah fighters who arrived in Syria in early August. The statement was dismissed by his family – the al-Meqdad clan – as a lie.
The clan, who are thought to be heavily involved in smuggling, have been described as a family with a military wing.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are all Sunni Muslim countries that support the Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad.
As the al-Meqdads threatened to carry out further abductions, the official Saudi news agency Spa quoted a foreign ministry official as saying Saudi citizens should avoid “travelling to Lebanon for their own safety”.
A UAE foreign ministry official said it issued its alert after the embassy “received information about UAE nationals being targeted and because of the difficult and sensitive circumstances in Lebanon”, state news agency Wam reported.
Lebanon is a popular tourist destination for Saudis and citizens of other Gulf states.
The abductions were condemned by Lebanese Prime Minister Nagib Mikati and President Michel Suleiman.
“Spreading chaos in the country will not bring about the liberation of hostages. On the contrary, chaos could cause [the hostages] harm and threatens the sovereignty of the state,” the president said.
Like Syria’s other neighbors – Turkey, Iraq and Jordan – Lebanon has absorbed thousands of refugees fleeing from the conflict.
But unlike the other countries, Lebanon risks being plunged into sectarian strife, possibly even a return to civil war, by the strains inflicted on its own delicate internal situation by the Syrian crisis, correspondents say.
Last week, former information minister Michel Samaha was arrested and accused along with two Syrian military figures of plotting to destabilize Lebanon and incite sectarian fighting.
Tripoli – Lebanon’s second city – has recently witnessed street gun battles between supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian rebels have produced footage of a man they claim is the captured pilot of a fighter jet that went down in the east of the country.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) say they shot a military aircraft down near the Iraqi border.
But state media say the plane crashed because of “technical problems” and a search is under way to find the pilot.
Government forces have continued their advance in Aleppo, with reports of clashes in the west of the city.
According to Syria’s state-run news agency Sana, the plane that went down had suffered a fault with its “control mechanisms” during a routine training mission, forcing the pilot to abandon the aircraft.
Syrian rebels have produced footage of a man they claim is the captured pilot of a fighter jet that went down in the east of the country
The aircraft was shot down near the town of al-Muhassan, around 120 km (75 miles) from the Iraqi border in Deir al-Zour province, the rebels say.
The FSA says that one of the two-man crew died and that another has been captured.
A group calling itself the “Revolutionary Youth of the Land of the Euphrates” uploaded a video to YouTube purporting to show the captured pilot surrounded by three armed rebels, saying that his mission was to “bomb the town of al-Muhassan”.
In the video, which cannot be independently verified, the seemingly middle-aged man identifies himself as a pilot, Col. Fareer Mohammad Suleiman. He appears to have minor bruising to his face which he attributes to the plane crash.
In other footage provided by the rebels, what appears to be a Russian-built MiG-23 fighter jet is shown carrying two under-wing weapons pods thought to be loaded with air-to-ground missiles.
Anti-aircraft fire can be heard before the jet bursts into flames.
Rebel gunners are then heard on the footage celebrating.
If the rebels have succeeded in downing a MiG-23, it would be a significant moment in the conflict.
Reports have emerged recently of anti-aircraft weapons reaching rebels in Syria.
Earlier this week, photos were posted online by rebels showing them with a full surface-to-air missile system. This would pose a potential threat to the regime’s air power, correspondents say.
Meanwhile, activists say government forces have begun a new advance against rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Aleppo has seen fierce clashes between the two sides in recent weeks.
Government forces entered the Saif al-Dawla neighborhood with tanks and armored vehicles, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The strategic northern district of Salah al-Din had been coming under bombardment since the morning, the Observatory said.
State media also said Syrian armed forces in central Homs province had killed a large number of “mercenary terrorists”.
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to be appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, according to diplomats.
If confirmed, Lakhdar Brahimi would succeed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who resigned last week saying he could no longer carry out the role.
A six-point peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan failed to come into effect, and violence has escalated.
Rebels lost control of a key area of Aleppo after weeks of fighting.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) confirmed it had retreated from the strategic Salah al-Din district in the face of a large-scale government offensive launched the previous day.
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to be appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria
Lakhdar Brahimi’s appointment could be announced as early as next week, barring last-minute objections from governments, diplomatic sources told journalists.
Lakhdar Brahimi, 78, has held a long series of high-profile diplomatic posts.
As a senior Arab League official between 1984-91, he brokered an end to the Lebanese civil war, going on to serve as Algerian foreign minister between 1991-3.
Later, he was twice appointed as the UN’s top envoy for Afghanistan, in 1996-8 and in 2001-4. He has held similar roles for Haiti and South Africa.
Stepping down last week, Kofi Annan said he was unable to fulfill his role because of the growing militarization of the conflict in Syria, as well as the continuing deadlock over the issue in the UN Security Council.
Russia and China have vetoed resolutions on the crisis three times, citing their opposition to any action which might be seen as regime change imposed from outside.
After taking up his post in February, Kofi Annan formulated a peace plan that called for an end to the use of heavy weaponry, the free passage of aid, freedom of media and demonstration and for a Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.
It was supposed to come into effect in mid-April, but government forces continued to shell opposition strongholds and the opposition forces never fully committed to it.
The fighting recently intensified in the two main cities, with experts describing it as a new phase in the conflict.
Rebel fighters had been heavily embedded in Aleppo’s Salah al-Din district since seizing the densely packed area of narrow streets three weeks ago.
The rebels still control several other districts, including some in the east of Aleppo that activists said came under very heavy bombardment on Thursday.
State television said dozens of rebels had been killed or wounded in fighting in the Hananu quarter.
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, and Salah al-Din is considered a vital supply route for government troops coming from the south.
Syrian rebel commanders say they have lost control of the strategic Salah al-Din district in the northern city of Aleppo after a government offensive.
The city has come under fresh bombardment, as the army attempts to recapture areas seized by rebels.
Iran called for dialogue between the government and opposition, at the start of a summit on the crisis in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Lebanese authorities have detained a former minister with close ties to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Michel Samaha, who is known for his pro-Syrian views, was taken for questioning by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces over what were described as security reasons.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has confirmed it has retreated from Salah al-Din, a densely packed area of narrow streets on the south-west side of Aleppo, where rebel fighters had been heavily dug in.
Syrian rebel commanders say they have lost control of the strategic Salah al-Din district in the northern city of Aleppo after a government offensive
State media had reported the army was in full control of the district, saying it had inflicted heavy losses on hundreds of “terrorist mercenaries”.
“We have staged a tactical withdrawal from Salah al-Din,” rebel commander Hossam Abu Mohammed of the Dara al-Shahbaa Brigade in Aleppo told the AFP news agency by phone.
“The district is completely empty of rebel fighters. Regime forces are now advancing into Salah al-Din.”
The rebels still control several other districts, including some in the east of the city which activists say are coming under very heavy bombardment.
State television reported clashes there too, in the Hananu quarter. It said dozens of rebels had been killed or wounded, while others had thrown down their weapons and fled.
On Wednesday, Syria’s state military launched a large operation to retake Aleppo from rebel fighters, who overran some areas three weeks ago.
Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, and Salah al-Din is considered a vital supply route for government troops coming from the south.
The Syrian Observatory said at least 26 people were killed in Aleppo on Wednesday – it said they were among 130 people killed across the country.
Meanwhile, three days after Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to the opposition, the health minister Wael al-Halqi has been named as his replacement.
Wael al-Halqi is a Baath Party loyalist from Deraa in the south of the country, where the uprising began in March last year, and where violence is still raging.
Riad Hijab, whose defection was considered the most significant since the revolt began, was said to have crossed into Jordan on Wednesday.
Opening a 29-nation conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said dialogue between both sides was the only solution to crisis.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran firmly believes that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through serious and inclusive talks between the government and opposition groups that enjoy popular support in Syria,” Ali Akbar Salehi said in a speech broadcast on TV.
Western governments, which are not taking part, have expressed skepticism that Tehran can mediate, given its recent strong commitments to the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is a staunch ally of the Assad regime, said the summit would be a gathering of countries with “a correct and realistic position” on the Syrian conflict.
On Tuesday, Iranian security chief Saeed Jalili expressed strong support for President Bashar al-Assad during a visit to Damascus, describing Syria as a crucial part of a regional “axis of resistance”.
Kuwait’s foreign ministry told al-Seyassah newspaper it would not be sending a representative. Lebanon also said it would not attend while Moscow sent its ambassador and not its foreign minister.
On Thursday, Lebanese sources confirmed the detention of Assad ally Michel Samaha, who is being questioned over alleged plans to cause instability in Lebanon.
Michel Samaha was information minister for more than 10 years, serving under the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Allies of Rafiq Hariri accused Syria of being involved in the attack.
Syrian government forces have taken full control of strategic district Salah al-Din in the biggest city, Aleppo, after fierce fighting, state media say.
However, rebel commanders denied they had retreated from the Salah al-Din district, amid reports of a push by army tanks and armored vehicles.
Images have emerged of bodies in shattered buildings, after the bombardment of a town near Aleppo.
Opposition activists reported at least 20 deaths across Syria on Wednesday.
In another development, Jordanian officials confirmed that former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab had only just crossed into Jordan – two days after his defection was announced.
Syrian government forces have taken full control of strategic district Salah al-Din in the biggest city, Aleppo, after fierce fighting
Activists said he and his family had been hiding in the south of the country and that reports on Monday that he had already left Syria were aimed at throwing government forces off the trail.
State media said government forces had taken full control of Salah al-Din, killing most of the rebels there.
They also reported heavy rebel losses near the historic citadel and in another district.
But a commander from the rebel Free Syrian Army denied that it had withdrawn from Salah al-Din, and said it had launched a counter-attack following the arrival of some 700 reinforcements.
“For an hour and a half the Free Syrian Army has staged a counter-attack and reclaimed three streets out of five seized by regime forces,” Wassel Ayub told AFP news agency by phone.
Another FSA commander, Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, told AFP news agency via Skype: “It is not true the regime army has seized control of the district.
“It is true that there is a barbaric and savage attack.”
A team of Reuters news agency journalists who tried to enter Salah al-Din on Wednesday found that a checkpoint manned by rebel fighters this week had disappeared.
They were told by a lone rebel fighter that the rebels had abandoned their positions. Explosions could be heard as incoming gunfire hit buildings in the area, the Reuters team said.
Journalist Martin Chulov, of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, tweeted from Aleppo that the battle for Salah al-Din would likely decide the fate of the city.
Videos circulated on Syrian social media on Wednesday show people searching the debris of buildings in a town identified as Tal Rifaat, near Aleppo. One clip shows a plane passing overhead followed by an explosion on the ground.
Photos released by Reuters show people recovering body parts from the wreckage. At least one child appears to be among the dead.
Earlier, Amnesty International said satellite images had revealed at least 600 probable artillery impact craters in Anadan, also near Aleppo.
It said any attacks against civilians would be documented so that those responsible could be held accountable.
Syrian army has launched ground and air attacks against rebels in parts of Aleppo, activists say.
Rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) say they have repelled an army incursion and destroyed tanks, but there is no independent verification.
Western nations have warned of a potential massacre in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city.
Early on Saturday morning, activists said Syrian tanks began moving in on south-western districts of the city.
They said the bombardment of rebel-held areas intensified in the early morning, with military aircraft overflying the city at low altitudes.
Many casualties have been reported, our correspondent says, and a steady stream of vehicles carrying families is leaving Aleppo.
Syrian state television said that rebels, having failed in Damascus, were now trying to turn Aleppo into a den for their terrorism.
The rebels say they have destroyed a number of tanks, but their claim cannot be independently verified.
The rebels are vastly outgunned and outmanned by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian army has launched ground and air attacks against rebels in parts of Aleppo
Activists have reported violent clashes around the Salah al-Din and Hamdanieh quarters near the centre of Aleppo.
An emergency call has gone out to doctors to come to Salah al-Din and help if they can, our correspondent says.
On Friday, the Red Crescent suspended some of its operations in Aleppo because of the heavy fighting.
Rebels had been stockpiling ammunition and medical supplies in preparation for the expected assault.
Both sides are braced for heavy casualties.
“Rebels are stationed in narrow streets, in which fighting will be difficult,” a government security official told the AFP news agency.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 160 people were killed across Syria on Friday.
The fighting comes after two weeks during which rebels made significant gains.
On 18 July, an attack at Syrian security headquarters in Damascus killed four senior officials, including the defence minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of several parts of Damascus before being driven out by a government counter-offensive.
The rebels also seized several border crossings with Turkey and Iraq.
There has been fighting around Aleppo for the past week, with the government deploying fighter jets and helicopter gunships to beat back the rebels.
Until recently, Aleppo and Damascus had been relatively free of the violence that has wracked other parts of the country.
Earlier this week, thousands of government forces were moved from the border with Turkey to join fierce fighting in Aleppo, activists said.
On Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Syrian government to halt its offensive and demanded a clear statement that chemical weapons would not be used under any circumstances.
Syria has implicitly acknowledged that it has chemical weapons but says it will not use them against its own people, only against foreign invaders.
The former head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, said it was “only a matter of time” until President Bashar al-Assad was ousted.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 19,106 people had been killed since March 2011. The UN said in May that at least 10,000 people had been killed.
Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed “armed terrorist gangs”.
In June, the Syrian government reported that 6,947 Syrians had died, including at least 3,211 civilians and 2,566 security forces personnel.
Arab League foreign ministers have called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, as rebels are encouraged by last week’s assassinations in Damascus.
The rebels said the deaths of four top officials were a severe blow to the government.
Islamist rebels where he is are receiving weapons and money from outside.
Fighting continued overnight.
Government forces recaptured parts of Damascus, the suburbs of Barzeh and Mezzeh, which had fallen into rebel hands.
There and in other quarters, activists said a number of suspected rebels or sympathisers were summarily executed.
Syrian state TV on Monday showed images of Syrian forces going house to house and kicking down doors in Damascus, searching for any remaining rebel fighters.
Fighting was also reported in Syria’s second city, Aleppo.
Arab League foreign ministers have called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down
After an emergency meeting in Qatar, Arab League foreign ministers called on President Bashar al-Assad to resign rapidly, and offered his family safe passage out of Syria.
They also called on the Syrian opposition to form a transitional government.
The call appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
Bashar al-Assad held a meeting with his new army chief of staff and gave him instructions, reportedly including a drive to crush armed rebels.
The meeting followed last week’s attack in Damascus, in which four senior officials were killed in what the Syrian government described as a suicide blast.
Rebels outside Damascus say the assassinations were a blow to the government.
They said the once-feared secret police were now a spent force, and the government was relying entirely on a weakened military.
However, the rebels are divided, between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Salafists (hardline Islamists).
The Salafists are better armed, he says, because they are receiving weapons and money from outside.
Meanwhile, the EU is to tighten sanctions and an arms embargo against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
EU foreign ministers agreed to freeze the assets of 26 individuals and three firms close to the Syrian government.
They will be added to a blacklist which already contains the names of 129 people and 49 entities.
EU member states will also be required to send inspectors to board planes and ships believed to be carrying weapons or suspicious supplies to Damascus.
The inspections will only take place on the territory or in the territorial waters of EU states.
Britain and France are calling for more EU aid to refugees from Syria.
On Sunday, the US signed an agreement to give Jordan an additional $100 million to help refugees fleeing from Syria.
The elite fourth division of the Syrian army, commanded by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, led the attack on the Barzeh area of Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Mezzeh, government forces “executed” at least 20 men in the area, some activists told the Reuters news agency by telephone.
The battle for control of Aleppo is still going on.
State TV played down the scale of the violence, saying troops were merely hunting down “terrorists”.
Rebel commanders have vowed to take it over completely and use it as a base for liberating the whole country, but state TV said many armed rebels had fled across the border to Turkey.
Rebels were now in control of the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey. Turkey is not allowing non-Syrian nationals through so the border remains effectively closed.
There were also reports of violence in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Sunday. Witnesses told Reuters that it was being attacked with artillery and rockets from helicopter gunships.
According to reports from activists and residents, the Syrian capital Damascus has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict so far.
Mortar and small-arms fire was reported in several areas as government forces clashed with the Free Syrian Army.
The fighting came as UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan prepared to meet Russia’s foreign minister for talks on the Syrian crisis.
Russia has been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Kofi Annan is expected to urge Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to put pressure on the Syrian authorities to begin a political transition..
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said the conflict in Syria is now in effect a civil war.
It means combatants across Syria are now subject to the Geneva Conventions and could be liable for war crimes prosecution in the future.
The ICRC had previously regarded only the areas around Idlib, Homs and Hama as warzones.
Syrian capital Damascus has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict so far
Clashes between government forces and Free Syrian Army rebels seem to be creeping ever closer to the heart of Damascus and the centre of the regime’s power.
Mortars were reportedly used on the southern edge of the city, in areas like Tadhamon and Midan and around nearby Palestinian refugee camps.
Activists said clashes continued into the early hours of the morning.
A convoy of army reinforcements was reported to have been attacked by rebels in Kfar Sousa to the west, leading to further clashes there.
Residents were said to be fleeing some areas, while in other parts of the city protesters blocked motorways with burning tyres.
There has been frequent trouble in these areas – barely three miles (4-5 km) from the centre – for months.
But as with many of the suburbs ringing the city slightly further out, all the government’s repeated efforts to stifle defiance have failed.
The government has denied that it had used heavy weapons in its attack on the village of Tremseh on Thursday.
Activists initially described fighting in Tremseh, which is near the city of Hama, as a massacre of dozens of civilians, but later accounts suggested most of the dead were armed rebels.
UN observers at the scene have said Syrian forces used heavy artillery, tanks and helicopters, but Damascus denies those allegations and said just two civilians had been killed.
The accusations, if proved, would mean Damascus had broken an agreement it made with UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
Further pressure was put on the government of President Bashar al-Assad when the International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees the Geneva Conventions, said fighting had now spread beyond the three hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama.
Spokesman Hicham Hassan said Syria was now regarded as a “non-international armed conflict”, which is the technical term for civil war.
“What matters is that international humanitarian law applies wherever hostilities between government forces and opposition groups are taking place across the country,” he said.
The statement is significant because it is the Red Cross’ job to monitor the conduct of the fighting, and to tell warring parties what their obligations are.
Under the Geneva Conventions, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks on medical personnel or the destruction of basic services like water or electricity are forbidden and can be prosecuted as war crimes.
From now on, all those fighting in Syria are officially subject to the laws of war, and could end up at a war crimes tribunal if they disobey them.
The ICRC’s announcement echoes both the UN’s head of peacekeeping Herve Ladsous and President Assad, who has said the country is at war.
Some 16,000 people are thought to have been killed since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011.
UN diplomats are attempting to agree a way forward for the organization’s monitoring mission in the country.
The mission’s mandate runs out on Friday, and Western nations are trying to get Russia and China to agree to a strengthened resolution authorizing sanctions.
Kofi Annan’s six-point plan:
1. Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people
2. End to violence by all sides; army troops to stop using heavy weapons and withdraw to barracks
3. Parties to allow humanitarian aid
4. Authorities to free political detainees
5. Authorities to ensure freedom of movement for journalists
6. Authorities to allow peaceful demonstrations
This morning, 4 western journalists are home safe with their families, the echoes of the horror and heroism of Baba Amr still ringing in their ears. Over 50 Syrian activists, supported by Avaaz, volunteered to rescue them and scores of wounded civilians from the Syrian army’s killzone. Many of those incredible activists have not survived the week.
Abu Hanin is one of the heroes. He’s 26, a poet, and when his community needed him, he took the lead in organizing the citizen journalists that Avaaz has supported to help the voices of Syrians reach the world. The last contact with Abu Hanin was on Thursday, as regime troops closed in on his location. He read his last will and testament to the Avaaz team in Beirut, and told us where he had buried the bodies of the two western journalists killed in the shelling. Since then, his neighborhood of Baba Amr has been a black hole, and we still don’t know his fate.
It’s easy to despair when seeing Syria today, but to honour the dead, we must carry forward the hope they died with. As Baba Amr went dark and fears of massacre spread, Syrians took to the streets — yet again — across the country, in a peaceful protest that showed staggering bravery.
Their bravery is our lesson, the gift of the Syrian people to the rest of us. Because in their spirit, in their courage to face the worst darkness our world has to offer, a new world is being born.
And in that new world, the Syrian people are not alone. Millions of us from every nation have stood with them time and time again, right from the beginning of their struggle. Nearly 75,000 of us have donated almost $3 million to fund people-powered movements and deliver high-tech communications equipment to help them tell their story, and enable the Avaaz team to help smuggle in over $2 million worth of medical supplies. We’ve taken millions of online actions to push for action from the Security Council and the Arab League and for sanctions from many countries, and delivered those online campaigns in dozens of stunts, media campaigns and high-level advocacy meetings with top world leaders. Together we’ve helped win many of these battles, including for unprecedented action by the Arab League, and oil sanctions from Europe.
Our team in Beirut has also provided a valuable communications hub for brave and skilled activists to coordinate complex smuggling operations and the rescue of the wounded and the journalists. Avaaz does not direct these activities, but we facilitate, support and advise. We have also established safe houses for activists, and supported the outreach and diplomatic engagement of the Syrian National Council — the opposition movement’s fledgling political representative body. Much of the world’s major media have covered Avaaz’s work to help the Syrian people, including features on BBC, CNN, El Pais, TIME, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, AFP and many more, citing our “central role” in the Syrian peaceful protest movement.
Today, a dozen more nightmares like that visited on the city of Homs are unfolding across Syria. The situation will get worse before it gets better. It will be bloody, and complicated, and as some protesters take up arms to defend themselves, the line between right and wrong will blur. But President Assad’s brutal regime will fall, and there will be peace, and elections, and accountability. The Syrian people simply will not stop until that happens — and it may happen sooner than we all think.
Every expert told us at the beginning that an uprising in Syria was unthinkable. But we sent in satellite communications equipment anyway. Because our community knows something that the experts and cynics don’t — that people power and a new spirit of citizenship are sweeping our world today, and they are fearless, and unstoppable, and will bring hope to the darkest places. Marie Colvin, an American journalist covering the violence in Homs, told Avaaz before she died, “I’m not leaving these people.” And neither will we.
With hope, and admiration for the Syrian people and courageous citizens everywhere,
Ricken, Wissam, Stephanie, Alice, David, Antonia, Will, Sam, Emma, Wen-Hua, Veronique and the whole Avaaz team
P.S. If you want to do more, click here to help keep our lifeline of hope into Syria open:
A seven-month-old boy was decapitated by a Syrian army officer who cracked down on people suspected of sheltering rebels after a group of soldiers stormed into a house, reports say.
According to a soldier from the Syrian army’s 11th Armoured Division, his commanding officer snatched the child from the living room when they found the man they were looking for was out.
The officer then apparently laid the child on the floor, pulled out his army knife and decapitated the little boy in front of his horrified mother.
According to The Sunday Times, the officer then hung the child’s head above the front door and screamed that he would do the same to another child unless the man gave up.
The incident allegedly took place last week in the north-west town of Jisr al-Shughur during a heavy security operation.
Mohammed, a 22-year-old soldier, told The Sunday Times: “That was when I decided to defect. I’ll have to live with that memory for ever.
“We did things I never want to remember.”
There is mounting evidence that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been deliberately targeting children in a bid to crush unrest.
The UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also said there are concerns of war crimes and torture being carried out on children.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that the “old order” of one-man rule and family dynasties was over in the Middle East.
Ban Ki-moon urged President Bashar al-Assad to halt the bloodshed and said revolutions during the Arab Spring showed that people would no longer accept tyranny.
An estimated 5,000 people have been killed during the brutal crackdown on 10 months of unrest, with an estimated 400 dead in the last three weeks alone.