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Anti-gov't protests erupt in Syria amid clashes with rebels

(Xinhua)

13:36, March 24, 2012

DAMASCUS, March 23 (Xinhua) -- Anti-government activists staged protests Friday in several Syrian cities, as clashes were reportedly raging between the government forces and armed rebels in the northern region.

Some Arab satellite news TVs showed footage featuring crowds of people in several areas across Syria demanding the downfall of the leadership of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The protests were titled "We are coming Damascus" by anti- government activists, referring to the recent escalating clashes and attacks by armed rebels known as the Free Syrian Army on the government forces and security installations in the capital Damascus.

Fierce clashes erupted Friday between the government forces and armed rebels at the town of Azaz in the northern province of Aleppo, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reportedly said.

The clashes in Azaz, which is 8 km from the Turkish borders, left at least three army personnel and one rebel killed, the observatory said, adding that military helicopters were seen hovering over the town.

It also reported that 24 mortar shells slammed into the streets of several neighborhoods in the central city of Homs Friday morning.

Meanwhile, the activist network Local Coordination Committees said around 18 people were killed across Syria on Friday, most of them in Homs.

It also said that the government forces nested atop a building near a mosque in the southern Daraa province, to monitor the worshipers' departure from the mosque after the Friday noon prayers and to keep them from staging protests.

The activists' report could not be independently verified.

The crisis in Syria has grown more militarized as protesters and alleged army defectors took up arms to confront the alleged crackdown by the government forces on opposition protesters. Some Islamist groups also joined the fight against the government.

An al-Qaida-inspired Islamist group known as al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant on Wednesday claimed responsibility for several recent attacks against security and army compounds in Syrian cities, including the suicide bombings last week that claimed the lives of at least 29 people.

The Syrian government has also blamed the unrest on "terrorist groups" backed and financed by some Arab and Western countries. It said late 2011 that the "armed terrorist groups" had killed more than 2,000 army and security personnel during the unrest.

The United Nations said recently that more than 8,000 people died in Syria's violence and 230,000 Syrians have fled their homes since the beginning of unrest one year ago.

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