Fierce battles in Syria; US to raise aid to rebels

18 people killed Friday near the Lebanese border; gunmen shot a government official Thursday in Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) — Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad fought fierce battles with rebels on Friday near the Lebanese border as US officials said the Obama administration was poised to announce millions more in non-lethal military aid to the Syrian opposition.

Syrian state media and activists said 18 people were killed in Syria’s third largest city of Homs on Friday and reported that gunmen killed a government official the night before in a restaurant in Mazzeh, a western neighborhood in the capital, Damascus. The killing of Ali Ballan, head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria’s relief agency, was the latest in a series of government and security officials, as well as regime supporters, who have been assassinated in the capital since the Syrian crisis began two years ago.

The state-run SANA news agency said “terrorists” opened fire on Ali Ballan while he was dining at the restaurant, killing him instantly. The government refers to opposition fighters as terrorists, denying there is an insurgency against Assad’s regime.

Heavy fighting was reported near the contested town of Qusair in the central Syrian province of Homs, along the Lebanese border. On Thursday, government forces captured a town in the province and rebels seized a military base in the area. Eighteen people were killed on Friday in the shelling of Deir Baalba district on the eastern edge of the city of Homs, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The border region in Homs is strategic because it also links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. The coast also is home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus. Assad’s regime is dominated by his Alawites while the rebels are mostly from the country’s Sunni majority.

On Thursday, government forces captured the town of Abel, cutting off the road between Homs and Qusair, said Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman. He said the regime appeared to be trying to conduct a siege on Qusair. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said Syrian army warplanes bombarded the area around Qusair on Friday.

Both activist groups also reported heavy clashes in Damascus’s southern suburb of Daraya, which the regime has been trying to recapture for months. They also reported clashes in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa in the north and in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began.

In the country’s east, there were reports of heavy fighting in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province, with clashes between government troops and rebels concentrated on the airport in the outskirts of the provincial capital. There were no immediate reports on the casualties in the fighting.

Abdul-Rahman said rebels were attacking an army base near the town of Busra al-Harir in Daraa. A video aired on Al Arabiya TV showed rebels using a multiple rocket launcher, reportedly during the attack on Daraa base.

Syria’s crisis began with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, according to the United Nations. The 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.

Later Friday, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was scheduled to brief the Security Council behind closed doors.

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.

Since late 2012, rebels have been seizing fields in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, one of two main centers of oil production. Most recently, they captured the Jbeysa oil field, one of the country’s largest, after three days of fighting in February.

Before the uprising, the oil sector was a pillar of Syria’s economy, with the country producing about 380,000 barrels a day and exports — mostly to Europe — bringing in more than $3 billion in 2010. Oil revenues provided around a quarter of the funds for the government budget.

Oil production now is likely about half that, according to estimates. The government has not released recent production figures.

The civil war continues to take a heavy toll on civilians.

More than 5 million Syrians have fled their homes because of the relentless fighting, seeking shelter in neighboring countries or in other parts of Syria where the violence has temporarily subsided.

In the past few weeks, U.N.’s humanitarian agencies have warned that they were running low on resources and that without additional funds they would be forced to scale back relief efforts.

On Thursday, U.N.’s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said children were starving to death in Syria and asked the Security Council to approve cross-border relief operations into Syria to deliver aid them and other civilians.

About half of the $1.5 billion needed to fund Syria’s humanitarian needs through June has been collected, Amos said, noting a recent $300 million pledge from Kuwait.

Amos said 6.8 million Syrians were in need, with 4.25 million displaced within Syria and 1.3 million as refugees in neighboring countries.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press

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