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Raids, blasts in Damascus as Syria opposition meets

DAMASCUS: Syrian warplanes hit targets around Damascus and a blast shook the heart of the capital yesterday, 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 kilometers (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 yesterday morning, wounding seven civilians. It blamed the explosion on “terrorists” — the regime’s term for armed rebels.
The area is close to several security centers 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 organization 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 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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