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Al Qaeda group fights back against Syria rebel assault

Al Qaeda-linked jihadists struck back against rival rebels in eastern and northern Syria on Friday after a week of internecine fighting among opponents of President Bashar al-Assad in which 500 people have been killed, a monitoring group said.

A coordinated offensive by armed groups had seized several strongholds of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Aleppo, on the border with Turkey, and further east in Raqqa - the only city under control of Assad's foes.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIL fighters pushed back rival rebels on the eastern approaches of Raqqa on Friday. They also killed 20 fighters in the town of Al-Bab, north-east of Aleppo, the monitoring group said.

The fighting comes less than two weeks before the planned start of international peace talks aimed at ending nearly three years of conflict in Syria, which the Observatory says has killed more than 130,000 people.

Prospects for progress at the talks in Switzerland appear dim. Assad, buttressed by recent military gains and the worst rebel infighting since the civil war began, has ruled out demands from the weakened opposition that he stand aside.

Most rebels are opposed to the negotiations, known as Geneva 2, and the main opposition group in exile, the National Coalition, has delayed a final decision on attending the talks until just days before their January 22 start date.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday he was not sure the conference would take place. Syria's Muslim Brotherhood said conditions were not right to hold it because international powers had not done enough to ensure its success.

In a statement on Friday, the Brotherhood, which has members in the coalition, set out conditions for attending including release of detainees, opening humanitarian corridors to besieged areas and the withdrawal from Syria of Iranian, Iraqi and Hezbollah fighters who back Assad.

Opposition figures from another coalition group, the Syrian National Council, have already said they will shun Geneva because world powers have not done enough to force Assad to step aside.

Syria's conflict started with mostly peaceful protests in March 2011 against the president but turned into an armed insurgency and then civil war after Assad's security forces cracked down forcefully on demonstrators.

Dozens Killed in Homs

The United Nations has said the talks should implement an international accord reached in Geneva 18 months ago which called for the establishment of a fully empowered transitional body - a phrase which Assad's opponents say means he must leave power.

But Assad's government says it will not surrender power and the president will remain in charge. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said on Tuesday that Syrians wanted Assad to stand for re-election later this year, the strongest indication yet that Assad intends to extend his rule.

Damascus has said the talks should focus on combating terrorists, the label it gives to all armed fighters battling to overthrow Assad, and it faces little pressure to make concessions after the army's recent military gains.

In the latest fighting, forces loyal to Assad killed dozens of rebel fighters who tried to break an army siege of the central city of Homs earlier this week.

The state-controlled SANA news agency quoted a military source as saying army units "confronted armed terrorist groups" trying to get into the Khalidiya neighborhood north of the besieged rebel area in the Old City in the heart of Homs.

Thirty-seven rebels were killed by the army, SANA said, without giving a figure for losses among Assad's forces.

The Syrian Observatory said at least 45 rebels were surrounded and killed as they left the old city on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Assad's forces have surrounded rebels for more than a year in Homs. They have also pushed back rebel forces from nearby rural areas which had formed part of their supply lines from neighboring Lebanon and allowed the rebels to threaten the main highway linking Damascus to Homs, the Mediterranean coast and the north of the country.

[Source: By Dominic Evans, Reuters, Beirut, 10Jan14]

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