Clashes rage in Syria, opposition meets abroad
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels fought the army in northern Syria on Saturday, activists said, and Syrian dissidents abroad gathered to try to unify and project themselves as a credible alternative to President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fighting in Idlib province, on Syria's northern border with Turkey and a hotspot of the 14-month-old revolt against Assad's rule.
"Violent clashes are raging between Syrian regime forces and armed military defectors ... The sounds of strong explosions were heard followed by security forces using heavy and medium machinegun fire," the British-based Observatory said.
Violence has rumbled on despite a ceasefire declared a month ago by international envoy Kofi Annan and the presence of a U.N. monitoring mission now with about 150 observers on the ground.
Opposition leaders abroad flew to Rome to try to strengthen their fractured Syrian National Council (SNC), which is seeking international help in the struggle against Assad.
Political jockeying within the SNC has prevented it from gaining full international endorsement. Executive members told Reuters they may choose a new president or restructure the council in a bid to garner broader support.
In Damascus, crowds gathered for prayers to commemorate 55 people killed in twin suicide bombings in the capital on Wednesday, the deadliest there since the uprising began.
The carnage in Syria, once confined to provincial cities and the countryside, has crept closer to central Damascus and the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, which had seen few challenges to Assad's power until bomb explosions in recent weeks.
The latest Damascus attacks were claimed by the little known al-Nusra Front on Saturday in a YouTube video statement. But the video offered no decisive evidence to prove the group's role. Al-Nusra did not show footage of the bombings or of the estimated one tonne of explosives used in each.
Assad's government has pointed to the rising number of explosions in city centers as proof that it is facing foreign-backed militant groups and not a home-grown uprising.
"Western countries and the United States, which made alliances to wage wars using the pretext of fighting terrorism, are now making alliances with the terrorists which Syria has been facing," Information Minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud told reporters in Damascus on Saturday.
Local activists and the rebel Free Syrian Army, which has frequently attacked army convoys and military targets, deny they were behind the bombings. The opposition accuses the government of orchestrating the blasts to tarnish its foes' reputation.
Syria's uprising began as a peaceful protest movement but has become increasingly militarized as rebels began to fight back against a violent crackdown by Assad's forces. More than 9,000 people have been killed by security forces, who the government says have lost 2,600 dead at rebel hands.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, about 900 people have been killed since the April 12 "ceasefire".
"SACRIFICING BLOOD AND SOULS"
Opposition activists reported shelling by security forces in Idlib and central Homs province, which have seen some of the fiercest fighting during of the anti-Assad uprising.
The Observatory said at least two Idlib residents were killed as security forces raided villages close to the clashes or fired mortar bombs from military checkpoints.
Elsewhere in Idlib, four soldiers were killed and least seven were wounded when rebels attacked a convoy of armored personnel carriers, the Observatory said.
A rebel speaking to Reuters on Skype said the FSA was not violating the ceasefire but responding to attack. U.N. monitors have said both sides are breaching the truce deal.
"We're not just hearing the shelling, we can see the machinegun fire," said the fighter, who said he was hiding out near the army assault in Idlib. "Two of our men are wounded."
The Syrian state news agency SANA named 22 security force members it said had been buried on Saturday after being killed in various parts of Syria, including Idlib, Homs and Damascus.
"These martyrs sacrificed their blood and souls for the nation," SANA said. "They refused to allow armed terrorists and those who support them to encroach and destroy Syria."
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Rome; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Janet Lawrence)
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