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With peace deadline nearing, Syria sends helicopters against rebels

BEIRUT — The Syrian military stepped up its campaign against anti-government rebels Thursday as a deadline for the government to implement a U.N.-sponsored peace plan approached, while the country's fractured opposition took a step toward unity with representatives of Syria's Kurdish minority.

In the last two days, President Bashar Assad's troops have increased their use of helicopter gunships in rebel areas near Aleppo, the country's largest city, and outside the city of Idlib in the country's restive north.

"They fired today inside Idlib governorate with helicopters in the morning and at around 2 p.m.," said Abu Khalid, an anti-government activist in Idlib. "They have taken some of the soldiers out of the center of Idlib, but they are moving against nearby villages."

In Geneva, a spokesman for Kofi Annan, the United Nations' special representative to Syria, said the Syrian government had told Annan's office that troops and armor had been removed from three key cities Thursday: Idlib, Zabadani and the southern city of Daraa.

"They are using tanks, helicopters and heavy weapons in Taftanaz and Killi," villages outside Idlib, said Abu Khalid, who spoke via Skype using an alias that means "Father of Khalid" in Arabic. "Yesterday they killed more than 35 people in Taftanaz."

Shelling reportedly also continued in Homs, a central city of more than 1 million near the Lebanese border that's seen more than two months of nonstop fighting.

"Don't believe that Assad will change. Not even one soldier has been removed. Everything is the same. Nothing has changed at all," said an anti-government activist in Homs, also reached via Skype. He requested anonymity. "There are snipers and there is continuous killing. The situation in Homs is still the same: They are destroying everything."

"Yesterday they killed five people in Baba Amr," the activist said, referring to a neighborhood in Homs that was subjected to a month of heavy shelling that killed hundreds of civilians before fighters withdrew from the area at the end of February. Though Syrian soldiers are now in the neighborhood, clashes have continued in nearby neighborhoods.

Zabadani, a town near the Lebanese border that was briefly out of government control before the military retook it in February, also was being shelled, according to activists, who said heavy armor remained there.

The situation appeared to be similar in the restive Damascus suburb of Douma, which has seen an number of clashes between the military and the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized and lightly armed groups of army defectors and volunteers who took up arms last year, morphing what began as a peaceful revolution into a lopsided military conflict.

The Associated Press reported that the military used helicopters against fighters Wednesday in Haraytan, a town of about 50,000 outside Aleppo. Fighting has increased around Aleppo in past months, possibly as rebels have moved out of areas around Homs and Idlib in search of safer ground in the face of government offensives.

Activists who were transporting wounded fighters from Haraytan to Damascus said fighting continued Thursday in Haraytan. An unknown number of civilians remained in the town, unable to leave because of the fighting.

In Damascus, activists posted video of tanks on the streets in Barzeh, in the northern part of the city, and reported arrests during a funeral in Kfar Sousseh, in the southwest part of the city.

In Turkey, two prominent Syrian Kurdish groups, the Kurdish Freedom Party and the Kurdish Future Party, which had split in March from the most prominent Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, announced that they'd rejoined the council.

The groups said they took the step after the council agreed to put an additional paragraph in its "national contract for the new Syria" recognizing "Kurdish identity" and promising that a post-Assad government led by the council would pay reparations to Syrian Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population and until last year were largely denied citizenship.

"We put an additional paragraph to the national contract of new Syria document. After that, the Kurdish groups who left our conference last week with the aim of unification have accepted to be under the roof of the SNC," said Khaled Khoja, a Syrian National Council representative in Turkey.

The United Nations said in February that based on statistics provided by activists, more than 9,000 Syrian civilians and military defectors had been killed since March 2011. Syrian activists place the number at more than 10,000, and the government has said the rebels have killed more than 3,000 soldiers, policemen and civilians. It's unclear whether those deaths are in addition to those the anti-government activists reported or whether there's overlap between the numbers.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed to this article from Istanbul.)


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