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Syrian Rebels Seize Northern Border Crossing

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Syrian rebels have seized control of a third border crossing with Turkey after fierce battles with government troops, as fighting raged in the key cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

VOA correspondent Elizabeth Arrott reported from the Syrian capital Wednesday that thick, black smoke was rising from contested suburbs there.

At the Tal Abyad crossing near Turkey, rebels tore down the Syrian flag as Turkish authorities quickly closed the area and prevented a crowd of people from attempting to storm the border and cross into Syria.

This is the first time forces fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have overrun a border zone in al-Raqqa province, most of which has remained solidly pro-government.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels withdrew from three southern districts of Damascus after weeks of heavy combat and shelling. In the northern city of Aleppo, the army said rebels attacked several military positions in the east overnight and that helicopter gunships eventually drove them off.

Deaths mount

The Observatory said 32 people have been killed nationwide so far on Wednesday, including 27 civilians, after 173 died the previous day.

Also Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met President Assad and other officials in Damascus to discuss proposals by regional powers to end the 18-month conflict. Iran, Syria's main Middle East ally, has denied accusations it is providing military aid to the Syrian government.

Following their meeting, Mr. Assad said the war engulfing Syria was targeting not only it but the "axis of resistance" - a term Syria, Iran and Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement use to refer to their common opposition to Israel.

Amnesty report

Meanwhile, Amnesty International said the Syrian government has been increasingly carrying out "relentless, indiscriminate" attacks against residential areas that appear to be aimed solely at punishing civilians seen as sympathetic to rebel forces.

The rights watchdog released a report Wednesday based on its investigation earlier this month in Idlib, Jabal al-Zawiya and Hama provinces.

"We can say there has been essentially a game-changer since the end of July when government forces were pushed out from most of northern Syria," said Amnesty's Donatella Rovera, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the region.

"Since then [pro-Assad troops] have been striking from long-range using battlefield weapons of little use against military targets because they have a wide impact radius and fall randomly over residential areas [with] disastrous consequences for the civilian population," Rovera said.

She said "large groups of women and children" have fled to old Roman caves located outside certain villages in order to escape the shelling while other families dig their own underground shelters with very basic tools.

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Amnesty reiterated calls made by human rights groups for the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court for probes into possible war crimes.

It also warned that opposition fighters may turn to indiscriminate attacks and urged rebel groups to communicate to fighters that such violations will not be tolerated.

Earlier this week, a United Nations panel presented a finding blaming both sides in Syria for increasing the number of attacks against civilians.

The U.N. commission of inquiry said that although both government and anti-government forces committed war crimes, the abuses by opposition forces did not reach the "gravity, frequency and scale" of those carried out by pro-government fighters.

The Syrian government representative in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, dismissed the U.N. accusations as politically biased.

Hamoui said Syria takes seriously its obligation to save the lives of its people and to preserve their security. He said there can be no legal or moral cover for terrorism, which he blames on the rebels.

Article by VOA News