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Fighting rages in Damascus as Syria rebels on attack

Egged on French President's appeal to "retake" zones held by extremist groups, Syrian rebels launch attacks in Damascus, and northern Syria

AFP , Sunday 23 Jun 2013
Smoke rises from the wreckage of mangled vehicles at the site of an explosion in Damascus, Syria on 10 May, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)
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Rebels in Syria launched an attack on a police post in northern Damascus Sunday which left four police and three insurgents dead, a watchdog said, as violence escalated in and around the capital.

The flare-up came as French President Francois Hollande appealed to rebels to "retake" zones that have fallen into the hands of extremist Islamist groups and a day after world powers agreed to provide the opposition with urgent military aid.

The attack on the police post took place in the Rokn Eddin neighbourhood, while explosions in the Bab Musalla neighbourhood in south Damascus killed a civilian, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Three men attacked the Rokn Eddin police station. Clashes between the (attackers) and the police ensued. Afterwards... two explosions were heard," said the Britain-based Observatory.

All three attackers were killed and four policemen also died. Nine other people were wounded, five of them critically, the watchdog added.

The interior ministry meanwhile reported 11 people killed, including six "terrorists", during what it said were attacks launched by rebels in Rokn Eddin and Bab Musalla.

"Al-Nusra Front terrorists tried to enter the police station in Rokn Eddin and the criminal security branch in Damascus," it said.

The ministry described the attacks as "a new escalation by the terrorist gangs" -- using the regime term for rebels.

"Three suicide attackers clashed with police in Rokn Eddin's police station as they prepared to detonate their explosives," said the ministry statement.

"Three other suicide bombers" tried to attack the criminal security branch in Bab Musalla, it added.

"Branch personnel fought them off and killed them, defusing their explosives," said the ministry, adding that five people besides the attackers were killed.

The ministry said investigations at the targeted sites showed the attackers were members of Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist rebel group.

France's Hollande, on a visit to Doha, urged Syria's opposition to push extremists out of the zones they control.

"The opposition must retake control of these areas and push these groups out," he told reporters. If extremist groups "benefit from the chaos in future, (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad will seize this as an excuse to continue his massacres."

The Assad regime has systematically blamed violence in Syria on Al-Qaeda and affiliated, foreign-backed groups.

Violence also raged in the Damascus countryside.

The army battled rebels both in the Eastern Ghouta area east of the capital and in the Qalamoun area between Damascus and the Lebanese border, said the Observatory.

In northern Syria, 12 troops were killed in a rebel car bomb attack on the edges of Aleppo city, it said.

The fighting comes after world powers supporting the rebels agreed on Saturday to provide them with urgent military aid.

Qatar, which hosted the gathering of foreign ministers of the "Friends of Syria", said the meeting had taken "secret decisions about practical measures to change the situation on the ground".

A final communique said "each country in its own way" would provide "urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment" so that the rebels could "counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies and protect the Syrian people".

The rebels have reported receiving new equipment from "friendly" countries -- a possible allusion to Gulf Arab nations -- but the United States, France and Britain have been quiet on what they have provided.

Participants in the Doha talks said that the reticence was partly a nod to concerns by Italy and especially Germany, which has repeatedly cautioned that weapons could aggravate the conflict.

Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, said that all but two countries agreed on plans to support the rebels.

Washington and Doha had called for increasing aid to end what Kerry called an "imbalance" in Assad's favour.

Kerry said the United States remained committed to a peace plan that includes a conference in Geneva and a transitional government picked both by Assad and the opposition.

But he said the rebels need more support "for the purpose of being able to get to Geneva and to be able to address the imbalance on the ground".

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