A black flag, trademark of jihadists, is hoisted over one of the buildings in the Sheikh Suleiman base, some 25 kilometres northwest of the city of Aleppo on Dec 9, 2012. - AFP Photo
A black flag, trademark of jihadists, is hoisted over one of the buildings in the Sheikh Suleiman base, some 25 kilometres northwest of the city of Aleppo on Dec 9, 2012. - AFP Photo

DARRET EZZA: Militants led by the radical Al-Nusra Front seized a strategic army base in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo on Monday, in a fresh setback for President Bashar al-Assad's regime, a watchdog said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also reported clashes in a northern Damascus district, the fiercest in the area since a revolt against Assad broke out in March 2001.

Also on Monday, ahead of a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco later this week, EU foreign ministers met the head of the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition.

And the European Union, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said at the award ceremony in Oslo that the 21-month conflict in Syria that has cost tens of thousands of lives was “a stain” on the world's conscience.

“Let me say it from here today,” said European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso. “The current situation in Syria is a stain on the world's conscience and the international community has a moral duty to address it.”

Barroso spoke as EU foreign ministers welcomed Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, head of the newly formed National Coalition, as “a clear signal of how the status of the Syrian coalition is being reviewed,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

“It is a coalition which represents the legitimate interests of the Syrian people. We want that to be recognised as such by the European Union,” Westerwelle said.

The EU currently recognises the coalition as “legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people,” which falls short of recognising it outright as a potential future government.

Also on Monday the European Commission announced that it would provide another 30 million euros in humanitarian aid to help people affected by the Syrian violence, bringing its total contribution to some 126 million euros.

The capture by Al-Nusra Front and allied militant groups of the base at Sheikh Suleiman dealt a blow to Assad's regime as it had been the last major military base west of Aleppo city still under army control.

But it also undercut the military influence of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

An AFP journalist who covered the clashes around Sheikh Suleiman said many fighters were from other Arab countries and Central Asia.

A rebel chief told AFP that no chemical weapons or surface-to-air missiles were found on the base.

“We control the whole base, all the zone is under our control. The whole region west of Aleppo up to the Turkish border has now been liberated. But no chemical weapons were found, or anti-aircraft missiles,” said Abu Jalal.

The rebel chief headed the only unit of the mainstream rebel FSA which took part in the operation.

Also on Monday the army used warplanes and tanks to bombard rebel positions in Damascus province and violent clashes broke out in the north of the capital, the Observatory said.

Violence in Damascus has previously been focused on southern districts.

At least 67 people, among them 19 civilians, 26 soldiers and 19 rebels, were killed in violence across Syria on Monday, said the Observatory, which relies on activists and medics for its information.

The latest violence came two days ahead of a Friends of Syria nations meeting in Marrakesh, bringing together countries which support the anti-Assad revolt.

Arab and Western states will consider two key issues concerning the conflict — the political transition in the event of Assad's fall, and mobilising vital humanitarian aid as winter sets in.

Since the last meeting, in Paris in July, the number of people killed has risen from 16,000 to more than 42,000, according to the Observatory.

Meanwhile a diplomatic source in Ankara said that US-made Patriot missiles will not be deployed right at Turkey's volatile border with Syria but rather a short distance away, in a bid to reassure Russia.

“We want to keep the missiles away from the border in order not to cause any misunderstanding with Russia and to make it clear that their deployment is purely to defend Turkish territory,” the source said Monday.



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