Syrian troops battle rebels near Damascus, Aleppo

By ZEINA KARAM,Associated Press Updated at 2012-08-10 08:35:00 -0400

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces fought rebels outside the capital Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo on Friday as more civilians streamed across the border into neighboring Turkey to escape the civil war in their country.

Meanwhile, U.N. diplomats in New York said the search was on for another envoy to replace Kofi Annan who gave up trying to broker peace in Syria and who is leaving by the end of the month.

The diplomats said former Algerian foreign affairs minister and longtime U.N. official Lakhdar Brahimi is a strong candidate to take over from Annan. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were authorized to speak to the media.

Annan, a former U.N. chief, announced his resignation last week as joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, ending a frustrating six-month effort that failed to achieve even a temporary cease-fire as the conflict in the country descended into a full-out civil war.

The search for Annan's replacement suggested the international community was not entirely giving up on diplomacy to try end the conflict that has claimed the lives of at least 20,000 people, according to human rights activists.

Britain's government, meanwhile, said it was offering 5 million pounds (US$7.8 million) to Syria's rebel forces Friday to pay for communications equipment and medical supplies in an effort to bolster ties with the Syrian opposition.

Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that the U.K. would not supply any weapons, but confirmed the funds would pay for items including satellite phones, power generators and medical kits. He said diplomats would also intensify contacts with the political wing of the Free Syrian Army as concern grows over the country's possible fate if President Bashar Assad's regime is deposed.

Over the past two weeks, the northern city of Aleppo has shaped up to be the main battleground between Assad's forces and the rebels fighting for his ouster.

Aleppo holds great symbolic and strategic importance. Some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of regime support during the uprising. An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.

But rebels there say there are low on ammunition after a two-week withering assault. Despite that, they were still clashing with government troops Friday in opposition bastions of Aleppo, a city of 3 million people.

An Aleppo-based activist who goes by the name of Abu Issa said government forces were shelling rebel-controlled areas in the southwestern part of Aleppo and in the northeast. Towns and villages in Aleppo suburbs were "at the mercy" of fighter jets and helicopters strafing the area, he said.

"Soon there will be nothing left to destroy in Aleppo ... The regime is using air power without shame," said Abu Issa, who was not using his real name for fear for his own safety.

Turkish officials said more than 1,500 Syrians arrived over the past 24 hours, increasing the number of refugees in Turkey to about 51,500.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said many of the rebels fighting in Aleppo's main opposition stronghold of Salaheddine had withdrawn by midday Thursday, but that "pockets of resistance remain."

He said the rebels were short on ammunition but added that there were groups still clashing with regime troops in several parts of Salaheddine.

The activists with the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees also reported shelling Friday of several areas just outside Damascus, where rebels also were active. Residents reported hearing loud blasts in Damascus from the shelling on the outer edges of the city, according to the activists.

Syrian troops say they have purged the rebels from the capital after intense, week-long battles last month. But opposition fighters continue to stage hit-and-run attacks and are active in the suburbs around the city.

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Associated Press writers David Stringer in London and Ron DePasquale in New York contributed to this report.

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