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Syrian rebels claim massive Aleppo hotel bombing

By Barbara Surk

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 6:49 a.m. MDT

BEIRUT — A rebel-claimed bombing Thursday in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo leveled a hotel near the ancient Citadel that government troops used as a military base, causing multiple casualties, activists and militants said.

Syrian state television said the explosion struck the Carlton Hotel in a government-held area on the edge of a contested neighborhood in the old part of Aleppo.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which maintains a network of activists on the ground, said at least 16 soldiers were killed in the blast. The Islamic Front rebel umbrella group, which claimed the attack, claimed to have killed 50 soldiers. Both groups did not say how they know how many soldiers died, and the claims could not be independently verified.

In a live broadcast from the site of blast, the station's correspondent in Aleppo stood on a huge pile of rubble with twisted metal and palm trees sticking out, saying that the army had been using the building as a base and soldiers were positioned there at the time of the explosion. In the broadcast, Syrian TV did not mention casualties.

The attack in Aleppo is a blow to President Bashar Assad's government in the north as his troops prepare to regain control of the central city of Homs following last week's cease-fire agreement after a fierce, two-year battle with the rebels trying to oust him.

No such agreement appears to be in sight in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and former commercial hub. The city has been carved up into opposition- and government-held areas since the rebels launched an offensive there in mid-2012, capturing territory along Syria's northern border with Turkey.

In recent months, government aircraft relentlessly has bombed rebel-held areas of the city and the opposition fighters have hit back, firing mortars into government-held areas. The rebels also have detonated car bombs in residential areas, killing dozens of people.

Thursday's attack targeted a government-held area on the edge of a contested neighborhood in an old part of Aleppo. The country's official news service said terrorists — a term the government uses for rebels — dug up tunnels under Aleppo ancient district and detonated explosives there.

A local activist group called the Sham News Network also reported the blast, saying that Assad's troops were based in the hotel.

The Islamic Front posted a statement on its official Twitter account Thursday saying that its "fighters this morning leveled the Carlton Hotel barracks in Old Aleppo and a number of buildings near it, killing 50 soldiers."

The Islamic Front is an alliance of several Islamic groups fighting to topple Assad. Many of its fighters have joined the Front after breaking away from the Western-backed Syrian Free Army last year.

The Observatory said Islamic Front fighters planted a huge amount of explosives in a tunnel they dug below the hotel and detonated it remotely. It said the hotel was completely destroyed in the blast and at least 14 government soldiers were killed in the blast.

The Syrian government does not publicize its casualties in the civil war.

Meanwhile Thursday, more rebels were expected to leave the central city of Homs as an evacuation of opposition fighters moves into its second day.

Homs Gov. Talal Barazi told Syrian state TV late Wednesday that that the evacuation process is being conducted in "positive atmosphere." He said Homs will be declared a "secure" city once the army moves in later Thursday.

Barazi was seen touring Homs on Lebanon's Al-Manar TV, which is owned by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Hezbollah has been battling rebels in Syria alongside government troops for months.

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