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Al-Qaida Fighers Overrun Rebel Bases   02/28 14:22

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's al-Qaida affiliate overran bases belonging to a 
Western-backed rebel group near the northern city of Aleppo after heavy clashes 
that killed at least 20 fighters, activists said Saturday.

   The fighting took place near the town of Atarib some 30 kilometers (18 
miles) west of Aleppo, and pitted the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front against the 
mainstream Hazm Movement, which has received support from the United States.

   The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Nusra Front 
fighters seized control of several Hazm bases. At least 29 Hazm fighters and 
six Nusra Front militants were killed in the clashes, it said.

   An Aleppo-based activist who goes by the name Abu al-Hassan confirmed the 
clashes, but put the death toll at around 20 Hazm fighters. He didn't have any 
information on Nusra casualties.

   Abu al-Hassan said by telephone that the two groups have had "numerous 
disagreements" in recent weeks.

   In November, the Nusra Front expelled a once-powerful mainstream rebel group 
from Syria's northern Idlib province. The al-Qaida group frequently cooperates 
with more-moderate rebel factions, but has turned more hard-line since the U.S. 
targeted Nusra Front fighters with airstrikes.

   South of the capital, Damascus, government troops and their allies took 
control of several towns and villages on Saturday, the SANA state news agency 
and the Observatory said.

   The takeover of Habaria, Kherbet Sultana, Hamreet and Tal Qrein is part of 
an offensive the Syrian military and fighters from the Lebanese militant 
Hezbollah group launched this month that aims to drive back rebels who have 
pushed closer to Damascus.

   The region south of the capital --- near the Jordanian border and 
Israeli-controlled Golan Heights --- is also one of the last bastions of 
mainstream rebels.

   In Beirut, hundreds of Syrian Christians protested Saturday outside the 
local United Nations office, demanding the safe return of more than 220 of 
their brethren kidnapped this week by the Islamic State group. There has been 
no word on their fate.

   "All we're asking is freedom for our people," demonstrator Faez Hermes 
Eshaya said. "All my life, we never felt that Muslims were our enemies."


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