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SATURDAY, 19 APR 2014
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Raids, blasts in Damascus, Syria opposition meets
Agence France Presse
A man looks at buildings damaged after what activists say were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Erbeen, near Damascus October 31, 2012. Picture taken October 31, 2012. REUTERS/Maawia Al-Naser/Shaam News Network/Handout
A man looks at buildings damaged after what activists say were missiles fired by Syrian Air Force fighter jets loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Erbeen, near Damascus October 31, 2012. Picture taken October 31, 2012. REUTERS/Maawia Al-Naser/Shaam News Network/Handout
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BEIRUT: Syrian warplanes hit targets around Damascus and a blast shook the heart of the capital on Sunday, state media and a watchdog said, as the main opposition gathered in Qatar under US pressure for a makeover.

Security forces fanned out across northwestern parts of Damascus and roads were cut after fierce battles at dawn between rebels and troops near a political intelligence office, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

As the fighting raged, warplanes carried out three raids on the Ghuta region that lies about 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of the capital, the Britain-based watchdog said.

State media meanwhile reported that a blast shook the area near the Dama Rose hotel in the heart of Damascus Sunday morning, wounding seven civilians. It blamed the explosion on "terrorists" -- the regime's term for armed rebels.

The area is close to several security centres and Syrian military headquarters.

The fresh fighting comes a day after 194 people were killed in bombings, shellings and clashes across the country, according to an Observatory toll.

The escalating conflict and ever-rising death toll added urgency to a meeting of the opposition Syrian National Council in the Qatari capital Doha, with the United States reportedly pressing for a new umbrella organisation to unite the country's fractured regime opponents.

According to the reports, which emerged after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged that the SNC was not representative, long-time dissident Riad Seif is touted as the potential head of a new government-in-exile dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.

The SNC lashed out at alleged US interference with the opposition on Friday, accusing Washington of undermining the country's revolt and "sowing the seeds of division" by seeking the overhaul.

Of those killed on Saturday, 36 people died in fighting in the northwestern province of Idlib, where rebels said they had launched a major assault on an airbase used to deploy regime air power.

The attack on the Taftanaz base, from where helicopter gunships raid opposition positions and rebel-held areas, comes after troops launched an unprecedented wave of air strikes this week in a bid to reverse rebel gains.

A video posted on the Internet said eight battalions were taking part in the attack, including the radical Islamist Al-Nusra Front, and showed a missile launcher mounted on the back of a pick-up truck firing on regime positions.

Analysts said the assault came as rebel forces clearly have the momentum in the battle for Syria's northwest.

"The rebels' gains in the north seem irreversible," said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh's Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department.

He said regime forces appeared to be concentrating their efforts in the region on defending embattled commercial hub Aleppo, which rebel advances in the past month have cut off from Damascus and the Mediterranean coast.

"The problem with this strategy is that the Aleppo garrisons are now largely isolated. It is likely they will fall in the months to come," he said.

The Observatory, meanwhile, released new videos of pro-regime fighters apparently killing prisoners and cutting ears from bodies, after footage showing rebels executing soldiers raised international concerns.

The purported video of the rebels -- also released by the Observatory -- showed about 10 soldiers being beaten, then lined up on the ground and executed with automatic rifles.

The UN human rights body said the video appeared to show a war crime and warned that "accountability will follow" for those who commit atrocities, while London, Paris and Washington raised concerns.

One of the two new videos released on Saturday, reportedly filmed in July in the northwestern Latakia region, shows a man in military fatigues brandishing a severed ear and a knife, laughing at the camera.

"Here is the ear of a dog -- we will teach them a lesson," he says, referring to the rebels.

The other, reportedly filmed in February in the southern Daraa province, shows fighters using automatic weapons to execute a group of rebels lying on the ground. The authenticity of the videos could not be verified.

The Observatory says more than 36,000 who have died since the uprising against Assad's rule broke out in March 2011, first as a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring and then as an armed rebellion after brutal repression by the regime.

 
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