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Syrian rebels step up siege of northern airbase

By The Associated Press

This article was published December 28, 2012 at 7:52 a.m.

Syrian rebels stepped up their siege of a military base in north of the country Friday as government warplanes bombed surrounding areas to support the defenders, activists said.

The fighting around Mannagh airbase near the Turkish border came as foreign ministry officials in Ankara said two Syrian air force generals had defected and crossed the border.

Rebels have been advancing in different areas in northern Syria, capturing several bases in and around the embattled city of Aleppo in recent weeks.

“The fighting did not stop all night around Mannagh airport,” said Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed. He added that Syrian military warplanes bombed rebel positions around the camp in an attempt to take the pressure off the base.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels reached the edge of the air base late Thursday and that heavy fighting continued into Friday.

The Observatory and Saeed also reported heavy clashes between troops and rebels in an around the Palestinian refugee camp of Handarat in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial center, which opposition fighters have been trying for six months to capture.

Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign minister said Moscow has proposed talks with the main Syrian opposition coalition, even though it had previously criticized Western countries for recognizing the group.

Sergey Lavrov said that Russia has contacted the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces through the Russian Embassy in Egypt and “we expressed readiness to conduct a meeting” with coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib.

The opposition leader al-Khatib quickly delivered an apparent snub: “If we don’t represent the Syrian people why is he inviting us?” He called on Russia to demand that President Bashar Assad step down, “a main condition in any negotiations.”

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