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Neighborhood fighting between Syrian forces and rebels continues in Aleppo

Syrian army soldiers moved into the Salaheddine district of Aleppo on Wednesday, pushing rebel fighters back as they attempt to control the north Syrian city.

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On Monday Assad suffered the embarrassment of seeing his prime minister, Riyad Hijab, defect after only two months in office. Hijab apparently fled to Jordan with his family.

Yet such defections and outside diplomatic pressure seem unlikely to deflect Assad from what has become a bitter struggle for survival between mostly Sunni Muslim rebels and a ruling system dominated by the president's minority Alawite sect, which is an esoteric offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Assad has firm support from old ally Iran, which sees Syria, along with Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, as a pillar of an "axis of resistance" against the United States and Israel.

Syrian rebels, who have accused Iran of sending fighters to help Assad's forces, seized 48 Iranians in Syria on Aug. 4, saying they were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said some of the captives were retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards who were on pilgrimage to a Shi'ite shrine in Damascus, but he denied any of them were on active service.

A Syrian rebel spokesman said on Monday that three of the kidnapped Iranians had been killed in a government air strike and the rest would be executed if the attacks did not stop.

Damascus and Tehran have accused Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states and Turkey, all allies of Western powers, of stoking violence in Syria by supporting the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels.

A Syrian rebel group said it had killed a Russian general working as a military adviser in Syria, but the general himself later met Russian journalists at the Defence Ministry in Moscow.

"I want to confirm that I am alive and well," the general, identified by rebels as Vladimir Petrovich Kochyev, told reporters, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency said.

Russia, which has scores of advisers and technicians in Syria, some of them at a Russian naval maintenance base in the port of Tartus, has given Assad firm diplomatic support.

Along with China, it has vetoed three Western-backed United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at intensifying pressure on the Syrian leader to step down, rather than using force to crush opposition to four decades of Assad family rule.

The violence in Syria has forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighboring countries, and about 2,400 refugees, including two generals, arrived in Turkey overnight.

Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency said most of them were women and children from areas near Aleppo and the northwestern city of Idlib, but also included 37 defecting military personnel. Nine were receiving hospital treatment.

Before the latest influx, Turkey said it was sheltering 47,500 Syrians fleeing a conflict which opposition sources say has cost at least 18,000 people since it began in March 2011.

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