Syria and Turkey edge closer to crisis as shelling continues
Turkey has shelled Syria for the fourth consecutive day, leading to fears that Syria's civil war may become a regional conflict.
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Syria's defense minister said Saturday that the government is ready to give amnesty to rebels who repent and those who don't "will be crushed under the feet of our soldiers."
Al-Freij, who became defense minister in July after his predecessor was assassinated, also claimed that the regime was getting the upper hand. "The most dangerous parts of the conspiracy have been passed and the killing is on its way to decline," he said.
The defense minister, who rarely makes public comments, spoke as Syrian troops launched a major offensive to retake rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, the central city of Homs and towns near the border with Lebanon.
Despite his claims of government troops being on the brink of restoring stability, the violence across the country shows no signs of abating. Activists say that at least 30,000 people have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising began.
Lebanese security officials said Syrian troops backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships began a major attack against rebel-held areas near the Syrian town of Quseir adjoining Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The Lebanese-Syrian border has also been the site of deadly border incidents.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said Lebanese troops were put on high alert along the border.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, reported intense shelling in rebel-held areas of Aleppo and Homs. They said the government shelling of the town of Taibeh near Homs killed at least 10 people and wounded dozens.
A Syrian official said government troops captured the strategic Sakhour roundabout in Aleppo on Saturday after days of heavy fighting. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The fight for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory and control of a stronghold in the north near the Turkish border. A rebel defeat, at the very least, would buy Assad more time.
Also Saturday, Iran asked international organizations to help free 48 Iranians purportedly being held by rebels since Aug. 4. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Iran holds the armed Syrian opposition groups responsible for the lives of the captives, the IRNA news agency reported.
Iran says those abducted were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus, but Syrian opposition groups claim they are members of the elite Revolutionary Guard assisting the regime.
In an amateur video posted late Thursday, a rebel group claiming to hold the Iranians said it would begin killing them within 48 hours unless the regime met a series of demands, including halting military operations against the opposition.