Syria Army Takes Pounding as Turkey Tensions Rise

Syrian rebels have gone on the offensive killing more than 100 soldiers in two days, a watchdog said Friday, as tension between Syria and Turkey escalated over cargo seized from a Syrian Air plane.

Fourteen soldiers died in an attack on an army post in the southern province of Daraa on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, a day after the army suffered 92 losses, the highest daily total for the military of the 19-month conflict.

With an average of 20 deaths per day, the army has lost about 10,000 soldiers, with at least an equal number wounded, in the conflict, a military hospital official told AFP.

In August, the same source reported more than 8,000 deaths.

As fighting raged on the ground, including in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, a war of words between Syria and Turkey grew angrier after Ankara said it had found military supplies on a passenger plane it intercepted en route between Moscow and Damascus.

The Syrian foreign ministry accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of lying when he said the jet had been carrying "equipment and ammunition shipped to the Syrian defence ministry" from a Russian military supplier.

With tensions running high, Turkey scrambled a fighter jet on Friday after a Syrian helicopter shelled the rebel-held town of Azmarin inside Syria near the Turkish border, an official in Ankara told AFP.

Turkey's allies have warned of the risks embedded in the conflict between the neighbours, which have exchanged fire over their border in recent days, amid fears that the Syrian civil war could set off a regional conflagration.

Amid the growing alarm, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Friday he has hastily scheduled a visit to NATO partner Turkey.

Westerwelle, who is on a trip to China, said in a statement he would hold talks Saturday with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul on "the situation in Syria and on the Turkish-Syrian border."

"The Syria situation has escalated. That fills us with the greatest concern," he said. "It is important that no one pours oil on the fire. We are counting on moderation and de-escalation."

The Britain-based Observatory said that Thursday had marked one of the deadliest days of fighting since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March last year, with at least 240 people killed across the country, including the 92 soldiers, 67 rebel fighters and 81 civilians.

Of the soldiers killed on Thursday, 36 died in fighting in Idlib province, where many of the fiercest clashes have taken place over the past three months, it said.

-- Rebels attack air force post in Aleppo --


In violence on Friday, regime warplanes attacked two buildings in the Idlib town of Maaret al-Numan, where intense fighting has raged since rebels overran it on Tuesday after a fierce 48-hour gunbattle, the watchdog said.

An AFP reporter said that the rebels, by gaining control of a stretch of highway near Maaret al-Numan, were on Thursday able to cut off the route linking Damascus to Aleppo, choking the flow of troops to battlefields in the north.

Rebel spokesman Firaz Abdel Hadi said almost 300 people had been killed in three days in Maaret al-Numan.

In Aleppo province, rebels Friday attacked a large air force post on the highway connecting Aleppo to Raqa province, further to the east, near Kweris military airport, according to the Observatory.

"The rebels attacked the air force battalion after midnight and the clashes went on until dawn, but the rebels definitely did not gain control of the post," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.

Despite the ongoing violence, anti-regime demonstrations were held in provinces across Syria after the weekly Muslim prayers.

In the embattled city of Aleppo, regime forces opened fire on protesters in the district of Halab al-Jadida, wounding a number of demonstrators, according to the Observatory.

In Derbassiyeh, a town on the border with Turkey, dozens of clapping children followed by women led a procession of hundreds waving Kurdish and Syrian revolutionary flags and chanting: "The people want the fall of the regime."

On his second regional tour, UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi meanwhile, held talks on Friday in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah with King Abdullah on ways to end the bloodletting in Syria.

In the plane incident, Ankara deployed two jets on Wednesday to force a Syrian Air passenger plane to land after receiving intelligence its cargo did not comply with civil aviation rules, Turkish officials said.

The aircraft with 35 passengers on board was grounded for nine hours before it was finally allowed to resume its journey to Damascus.

Syrian authorities challenged Erdogan to show the weapons he alleged had been seized from the plane.

"The plane did not carry ammunition or military equipment and Erdogan's comments lack credibility and he must show the equipment and ammunition at least to his people," the information ministry said.

According to Observatory figures, more than 32,000 people have died in Syria since the revolt erupted on March 15, 2012.

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