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Syrian army launches counteroffensive, calls on rebels to lay down arms

The Syrian army targeted rebels with heavy airstrikes in at least seven cities and regions Sunday, killing at least 20 people. The government also called on rebel fighters to surrender their weapons.

By Barbara SurkAssociated Press / April 7, 2013

Free Syrian Army fighters pose for a picture on a tank, that they claim to have seized from the Syrian Regime forces, in Homs April 5.

Mohamed Ibrahim/Shaam News/AP

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Beirut

After weeks of rebel gains in the south, the Syrian regime launched a counteroffensive on Sunday with widespread airstrikes and an operation that reclaimed a northern village on a strategically important route.

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At least 20 people were killed in heavy airstrikes that targeted rebels trying to topple the regime in at least seven cities and regions. To underline their resolve, the government called on opposition fighters to surrender their arms and warned in cellphone text messages that the army is "coming to get you."

State television said the aim of the counteroffensive was to send a message to the opposition and its Western backers that President Bashar Assad's troops are capable and willing to battle increasingly better armed rebels on multiple fronts.

Rebels have been making gains in recent weeks, especially in the south near the border with Jordan. They have seized military bases and towns in the strategically important region between Damascus and the Jordanian border about 100 miles away.

However in the north, the main rebel stronghold, government troops have been chipping away slowly over the past weeks at rebel gains around the city of Aleppo, the country's main commercial hub. They have been hammering rebel-held districts inside the city with fighter jets and artillery, sowing fear among residents.

Troops recaptured on Saturday the village of Aziza on a strategic road that links Aleppo with its airport and military bases, activists said. Rebels have been trying to capture that airport and the nearby bases for months now.

The regime seized back the village southeast of Aleppo after a 10-day battle with rebels, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"It's a setback for the rebels because the village is an important strategic point from which the army can shell (opposition) positions all around the area," Abdul-Rahman said.

It's also an outpost from which the army will be able to protect its convoys traveling the highway to ferry supplies to its bases at the airport.

Over the last year, rebels have greatly expanded the territory they hold in the northeastern provinces, including Idlib and Aleppo along the Turkish border.

In February, they extended their control into Raqqa province in the northeast, seizing the second hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River. Last month, the rebels captured Raqqa's provincial capital of the same name — the first city to fall entirely under opposition control in the 2-year-old conflict.

Capturing Aleppo's airport would be a major strategic victory that would enable the opposition to receive aid flights.

Aziza is one in a string of settlements along the Aleppo airport road that government troops have taken back.

The base inside the airport complex includes an airstrip from which regime fighter jets have been taking off to bomb targets around the country.

Sunday's airstrikes targeted Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama and the city of Idlib in the north near the Turkish border. The western Mediterranean city of Latakia, and the eastern province of Deir el-Zour and the suburbs of the capital Damascus were also targeted.

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