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BEIRUT - An al-Qaida-linked group fighting alongside Syrian rebels claimed responsibility Monday for a suicide car bombing that reportedly killed dozens of President Bashar Assad's loyalists last week.
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius pleaded for countries to honor their pledges of funding and other aid to the Syrian opposition to keep the country out of the hands of Islamist militant groups.
"If we don't give the means to the Syrian people to go achieve their freedom, there is a risk, and we all know it exists, that massacres and antagonisms amplify, and that extremism and terrorism prevail.
"Chaos is not tomorrow, it is today, and we need to end it. We need to end it in a peaceful way and that means increased and concrete support to the Syrian National Coalition."
Islamic militants have been the most organized fighters battling government troops in the 22-month-old conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed. Their growing prominence has fueled fears that Muslim radicals might try to hijack the revolt, and has contributed to the West's hesitance to equip the opposition with sophisticated weapons.
In Beirut, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the situation in Syria was getting worse - that entire neighborhoods are being destroyed by the fighting.
Amos, who just returned from Syria, also reported human rights abuses.
"I listen to the women who talk about what happened to them, to their families, the sexual abuse they have faced," Amos said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The indiscriminate shelling. The indiscriminate killing of people. This is a conflict that is happening essentially in towns and cities," she said.
Amos said she went last year to the once rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the central city of Homs. She said the entire neighborhood was destroyed and more than 70,000 people had left, but no one knew where they had gone.
"There was not a single building left standing," she said. "This is being repeated across Syria. It's a terrible thing."
Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. says has ties to al-Qaida and has declared a terrorist organization, said in a statement posted online that one of its suicide bombers detonated a car bomb last Monday at the headquarters of a pro-government militia in the central province of Hama. It said the bomber drove a truck packed with explosives to the militia's complex in the town of Salamiya and blew himself up "to give the tyrannical regime a taste" of violence it has been inflicting on the Syrian people.
Activists said at least 42 people, mostly pro-Assad militiamen, were killed in the blast. The government did not say how many people were killed, although state-run SANA news agency published photographs of what it said was a funeral procession for the blast's victims on Wednesday. In one of the photographs, a dozen men are seen standing behind 11 caskets, wrapped into a Syrian flag.
Jabhat al-Nusra has previously targeted government institutions in Damascus with suicide bombers and has led successful attacks on military bases and strategic territory in the country's north.
The suicide bombings are part of relentless violence that has engulfed Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
On Monday, activists said troops battled rebels in several towns and villages around Damascus, including in Daraya, Arbeen and Zabadani. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the regime's forces also shelled several of the capital's suburbs.
The areas outside Damascus have been rebel strongholds since the uprising began. In recent months, the rebels have used them as a base from which they have been trying to push into central Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.
In the north, troops clashed with rebels in al-Hasaka province along Syria's border with Turkey, the Observatory said, adding that at least 10 rebels were killed in the fighting that erupted Sunday after the opposition fighters attacked a government checkpoint.
International efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria have repeatedly failed and both sides fighting in the civil war are convinced they can defeat the other on the battlefield.
In France, Fabius pleaded for countries to keep their promises of financial aid to the Syrian opposition or risk compromising the legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition in the eyes of the people fighting the Assad regime.
The opposition coalition was formed in November. More than 100 countries have back the umbrella group, decreeing it the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. France was the first to confer such recognition.
"We have to give the Syrian people a clear signal: We are at your side," Fabius told representatives of some 50 nations.
Not all the promises of funding and other aid made at the Friends of Syria group's conference in December in Marrakech, Morocco, have materialized. France, which has spearheaded the formation of a viable opposition in exile, wants to make sure that backing that has been promised actually comes through.
More than $100 million was promised in Marrakech, but it's unclear how much has been sent.
Three Syrian National Coalition's vice-presidents attended the Paris gathering, which comes two days before a donor conference in Kuwait.
Amos, the U.N. official, said she went to Syria from Lebanon by land on Sunday because of insecurity around the Damascus International Airport that has witnessed fighting and air raids for weeks.
In recent months, several officials, including special U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, have flown to Beirut and then traveled by land to Damascus because of the fighting.
Amos hoped that Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq or Jordan don't close their borders with Syria. She said funds are needed to help refugees and those countries that are receiving them.
Amos spoke two days ahead of a donor conference for Syria that will be held in Kuwait. More than half a million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and there are hundreds of thousands who are internally displaced.
Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.