Fierce battles in Syria; US to raise aid to rebels

By Barbara Surk

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 19 2013 2:47 p.m. MDT

BEIRUT — An artillery shell slammed into a pickup truck, killing nine members of a family during fierce fighting on Friday in Syria as U.S. officials said the Obama administration is poised to send millions more in non-lethal military aid to rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad.

The attack that killed one woman, her four children and four nieces and nephews, who were all under 12, was the latest carnage to hit the northern town of Saraqeb. Just days earlier, a government airstrike killed at least 20 people, shattering store fronts and setting cars ablaze in the strategic town in Idlib province on the main highway from Syria's largest urban center of Aleppo.

Rebels have wrested much of the countryside of Idlib and other provinces in the north from regime forces, although government troops still control many military bases in the region from which they launch attacks — including airstrikes — on opposition-held areas.

Also on Friday, another 18 people were killed in heavy fighting in and around Homs, the country's third largest city near the Lebanese border, and a Syrian Army official was assassinated northeast of the capital, Damascus. The state-run SANA news agency said "terrorists" — the government's word for opposition fighters — shot and killed Syrian Army Col. Tamim Abdullah as he was driving home in Barzeh.

The assassination was the latest in a series of killings of government and security officials and regime supporters in the capital. A day earlier, Ali Ballan, the head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria's relief agency, was killed by gunmen as he was dining in a restaurant in Mazzeh, a western Damascus neighborhood.

More than 70,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war. The U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked for months on the Syrian war, and even the most modest attempts to end the bloodshed have failed.

Western and Arab nations blame the conflict on Assad's government. Russia insists on assigning equal blame for the suffering to the Syrian opposition and rebels fighting on the ground, and has cast vetoes, along with China, to block draft council resolutions. A U.N. envoy on Friday gave the Security Council a grim assessment of the two-year war, saying that the Assad government had been uncooperative in negotiations.

In Washington, U.S. officials said Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to announce a significant expansion of non-lethal military aid to the Syrian opposition at an international conference on Syria he will attend Saturday in Turkey. The officials told The Associated Press that Kerry is expected to announce a contribution of between $120 million and $130 million in defensive military supplies, which could include body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to preview Kerry's announcement publicly.

Also, the European Union is looking for ways to bolster the forces fighting to oust Assad, and is set to ease its oil embargo on Syria, two diplomats said Friday. The decision would allow the import of oil production technology and the sale of crude from territory held by the Syrian opposition, in close coordination with the movement's leaders, they said. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal decision by the bloc's 27 foreign ministers at a meeting Monday in Luxembourg.

For months, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been promoting a peace plan that would call for a transitional government in which Assad would step aside — a demand the Syrian president has repeatedly dismissed. After briefing the Security Council behind closed doors, Brahimi told reporters: "With the Syrians, I got nowhere."

He said there had been some progress with the Americans and the Russians, "but it is too little."

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