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BEIRUT: Rebels battled to hold onto Syria’s main northeastern highway yesterday as government forces fought insurgents on several fronts across the country.
The rebels captured an air defence base east of Syria’s biggest city, Aleppo, and government forces unleashed air strikes and artillery bombardments on the western city of Homs, activists said.
On the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey scrambled two fighter jets after a Syrian military helicopter bombed the Syrian border town of Azmarin.
The incident was the latest sign that tension between Ankara and Damascus is surging at a time when the 19-month-old conflict is deepening with no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough and growing concerns that it could spread across the Middle East.
The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a death toll for Thursday of more than 260 people, including civilians and combatants on both sides, in violence in the capital and the north, west and east of the country.
It said 92 soldiers had been killed on Thursday, one of the highest daily tolls on the government side since the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad broke out in March 2011.
The official Sana news agency also reported fighting nationwide and said dozens of rebels, which it called “mercenary terrorists”, had been killed. The reports could not be independently verified but they indicate an intensifying conflict, with the daily body counts of the past several weeks far exceeding previous months.
The British-based Observatory, which has a network of monitors in Syria, said fighting was taking place at a military barracks close to Maarat Al Nuaman, a town on the highway from Homs to Aleppo in the northwest.
Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, has been contested since July and the rebel capture of Maarat Al Nuaman this week cut the main route for Assad’s military to resupply and reinforce it.
Assad’s forces also intensified air strikes and artillery barrages against Homs yesterday, a day after they took heavy losses trying to overrun the rebel-held Khalidiya district, opposition activists said.
Meanwhile, a meeting next week of the Syrian National Council to admit new anti-regime factions into the main opposition bloc has been postponed until early November, an SNC official said yesterday. The delay comes after the umbrella organisation was flooded by requests from groups wanting to join it, SNC official Anas Al Abdi said, adding that the meeting will now take place in early November instead of on October 17.
The SNC “has received a huge number of requests for membership” and needs time to study them, Abdi said, explaining the reason why the Doha meeting has been postponed.