Syrian rebels fight for border crossings as clashes spread

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Syrians mourn during the funeral of 17 year old Free Syrian army member Mahmud Derwish after he was killed by the Syrian army during a clash at Bab al-Hawa near Idlib.

Syrian rebels fought to wrest control of the country's border crossings as clashes spread to the city of Aleppo, the latest sign of an escalating conflict that is driving thousands to escape to neighboring countries.

Lebanon and Iraq struggled to cope with the surge of refugees fleeing the violence. After a failed attempt at the United Nations to sanction President Bashar al-Assad's government, the Security Council voted yesterday to remove in 30 days unarmed monitors who have been confined for weeks to their Damascus hotel rooms because of the danger.

As chaos engulfed a nation at the center of the Middle East, Assad's opposition battled to take three border crossings with neighboring Turkey and one with Iraq. After five days of clashes in the capital, the fighting has spread to Aleppo, Syria's other major city. The government is resorting to more brutal tactics, with state television reporting "purging" in rebel hideouts.

More than 30,000 Syrians fled to Lebanon via the Masnaa border within 48 hours, with cars backed up for a kilometer (0.6 mile) and Lebanese security officials waiving the usual paperwork requirements, the Beirut-based Daily Star reported.

About 125,000 Syrians have left the country since the 18- month conflict began, and as many as 500,000 people still in Syria have been displaced from their homes, the US State Department said July 19.

Even with UN-led peace efforts in tatters, Western nations said Assad's days were numbered. Those numbers are getting "smaller and smaller," Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said yesterday.

State funerals

The Assad government held state funerals yesterday in Damascus for top security officials killed in a bomb attack this week as it seeks to reassert itself in a city that until recently had been spared the worst of the violence.

Among the four victims of the July 18 blast, Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah and the vice president's military adviser, Hasan Turkmani, were the most senior officials to die since the uprising began.

The Local-Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e- mail that 215 people were killed in the country yesterday, including 55 in Damascus and its suburbs and 28 in Aleppo. The opposition group said troops shelled Aleppo, where "dozens of missiles fell in the city, and many houses were destroyed and flattened."

The civil war is splitting the country along increasingly sectarian lines, with a Sunni Muslim-led opposition confronting a government whose top officials are drawn from the Alawite sect, affiliated to Shiite Islam.

Russia's stance

Russia, which on July 19 used its veto for a third time to protect Syria from UN sanctions, said its envoy in Paris had been misunderstood when he told French radio that Assad would be willing to go if it was arranged in a "civilized manner."

"Only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria, including that of its leadership," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Hopes for a peaceful outcome to the crisis have evaporated, said Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"What was possible nine months ago, became difficult six months ago and intractable three months ago," he said. "Now we're heading straight toward chaos."

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