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National News

March 1, 2013

INTERNATIONAL: Syrian rebel chief pleads for weapons

BEIRUT — The chief of Syrian rebel forces said Friday that his fighters are in "desperate" need of weapons and ammunition rather than the food supplies and bandages that the U.S. now plans to provide.

The Obama administration on Thursday announced it was giving an additional $60 million in assistance to the country's political opposition and said that it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to rebels battling to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The move was announced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at an international conference on Syria in Rome, and several European nations are expected in the coming days to take similar steps in working with the military wing of the opposition in order to ramp up pressure on Assad to step down and pave the way for a democratic transition.

A number of Syrian opposition figures and fighters on the ground, however, expressed disappointment with the limited assistance.

Gen. Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Syrian opposition's Supreme Military Council, said the modest package of aid to rebels — consisting of an undetermined amount of food rations and medical supplies — will not help them win against Assad's forces who have superior air power.

"We don't want food and drink and we don't want bandages. When we're wounded, we want to die. The only thing we want is weapons," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"We need anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to stop Bashar Assad's criminal, murderous regime from annihilating the Syrian people," he said. "The whole world knows what we need and yet they watch as the Syrian people are slaughtered."

Syria's main rebel units, known together as the Free Syrian Army, regrouped in December under a unified Western-backed rebel command called the Supreme Military Council, following promises of more military assistance once a central council was in place.

But the international community remains reluctant to send lethal weapons, fearing they may fall into the hands of extremists who have made inroads in some places in Syria.

Idris, who defected from the Syrian army and is seen as a secular-minded moderate, denied media reports that the rebels have recently received arms shipments.

Croation officials have also denied reports by local media and The New York Times that arms, including machine guns, rifles and anti-tank grenades used in the Balkan wars in the 1990s have recently been sent to the Syrian rebels.

"These reports are all untrue. Our fighters are suffering from a severe shortage in weapons and ammunition," Idris said.

"The only weapons we have are the ones we are getting from inside Syria and the weapons we are capturing from the Syrian military," he said.

Idris spoke from northern Syria where fierce clashes continued between government forces and rebels attacking a police academy near Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub.

Rebels backed by captured tanks have been trying to storm the police academy outside the city since launching a new offensive there last week. Activists say the academy, which has become a key front in the wider fight for Aleppo, has been turned into a military base used to shell rebel-held neighborhoods in the city and the surrounding countryside.

The Syrian state news agency said Friday that government troops defending the school had killed dozens of opposition fighters and destroyed five rebel vehicles.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group also reported heavy fighting Friday around the school, and said there were several rebel casualties without providing an exact figure.

The Observatory said clashes were still raging around Aleppo's landmark 12th century Umayyad Mosque in the walled Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mosque was heavily damaged in October 2012 just weeks after a fire gutted the old city's famed medieval market.

There were conflicting reports about whether the rebels had managed to sweep regime troops out of the mosque and take full control of the holy site.

Mohammed al-Khatib of the Aleppo Media Center activist group said the mosque was in rebel hands, although clashes were still raging in the area.

"The regime forces left lots of ammunition in it (the mosque) with guns and rocket-propelled grenades," he said via Skype.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said rebels have been in control of at least half of the mosque for days, but he could not confirm that they now had captured the entire grounds.

Near the capital, Damascus, activists said the bodies of 10 men — most of them shot in the head — were found dumped on the side of a road between the suburbs of Adra and Dumair.

Such incidents have become a frequent occurrence in Syria's conflict, which the U.N. says has killed nearly 70,000 people since March 2011.

Also on Friday, a spokesman for a Kurdish group in northern Syria said it had reached a deal with the leaders of the Syrian National Coalition to end infighting between rebels units in al-Hasaka province along Syria's border with Turkey.

The rebels seized control of large swathes of land in the area after they ousted government troops from military bases, border crossings and ethnically mixed villages and towns in the northeast.

The opposition's gains, however, have been marred by weeks of deadly infighting between Kurdish and other Syrian rebel groups over liberated territory.

Xebat Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units, or YPG, said a deal was reached late Thursday to end the infighting and unite behind a common goal, which is to oust Assad from power.

"From now on, the Syrian rebels will fight together with the YPG against the regime," Ibrahim told The Associated Press on Friday.

According to the agreement, the Syrian rebels will retreat from Kurdish areas in northern Syria. In return, Kurdish fighters are to battle alongside rebels units fighting the regime's troops anywhere in the Kurdish-dominated region of Syria, Ibrahim said.

Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Ben Hubbard in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.


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