Middle East

Syria conflict: Rebels seize Turkey and Iraq border posts

Syrian rebels have captured a number of positions on the country's borders with Turkey and Iraq.

A senior Iraqi official said all the crossings on Syria's eastern frontier had been seized. At one point, two Turkish posts were also in rebel hands.

The push came a day after a bomb claimed the lives of three senior defence officials in Damascus.

At the UN, negotiations are under way on extending the mandate of the observer mission in Syria,

The mandate for the mission is due to expire on Friday.

There are almost 300 UN observers in Syria, but the mission suspended most of its monitoring activity in June, because of the risk from increasing violence.

The US says it might consider a final brief extension of the monitors' work, but warned that it could not pin its policy on an unarmed mission.

The UK is proposing an extension for 30 days, and then the mission would continue only if the regime had removed heavy weapons from cities and sent troops back to their barracks.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that the UK would also seek to further isolate the Assad regime by encouraging Arab nations to impose travel bans and asset freezes.

Escalating battle

The major Abu Kamal crossing on the Euphrates river in the east was captured after a clash with government forces, opposition activists said.

More than 20 Syrian soldiers and their commander were killed when a remote army outpost in the far north-east was attacked, Associated Press news agency reported.

Iraq's government, seen as sympathetic to President Bashar al-Assad, has threatened to shut its side of the border and one official told Reuters news agency that it was closing the Abu Kamal crossing.

On the frontier with Turkey, too, rebels were said to have taken control of two posts, at Bab al-Hawa and Jarablus.

Video from the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib province soon emerged of rebels defacing a portrait of President Assad, but they later reportedly withdrew from the position.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says the regime's grip on outlying areas may be slipping, which is hardly surprising given the fighting in Damascus.

State TV has been reporting on violence across the capital, showing footage of troops in the Midan area where it said 20 terrorists had been killed.

Analysts point out that the regime shows no signs of collapsing, and the military is still heavily armed, loyal and able to defend key institutions.

Assad reappears

Violence broke out in the capital on Sunday, and two days later the rebels declared an all-out assault, calling it "Damascus volcano".

The explosion on Wednesday that killed three top security officials led to a mobilisation of government troops in an attempt to drive the rebels out of the city.

The president's brother-in-law, the defence minister and head of the government's crisis team were killed by a bomb as they attended a meeting at the national security headquarters.

The first images of President Assad since the attack have appeared, largely ending rumours he might have been hurt.

The footage appeared to show Gen Fahd Jassim al-Furayj, chief of staff of the armed forces, being sworn into his new post as defence minister.

Tanks and armoured vehicles were reported to have moved into Qaboun on Thursday, close to the centre of Damascus.

There were heavy casualties, activists said, as a result of an army bombardment of Zamalka in the eastern outskirts of Damascus.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of fatalities across the country on Thursday at 250.

The pace of events in Syria was in marked contrast to the diplomatic stalemate at the UN Security Council, where Russia and China vetoed a Western resolution calling for tougher sanctions on Damascus.

Under the Western-backed plan, the Damascus government would have been threatened with non-military sanctions under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter if it failed to move troops and heavy weapons from populated areas.

But the use of Chapter Seven paved the way for "external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs", Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin argued.

In a BBC interview, Mr Hague was asked if the UK would ever consider arming the rebels.

"I don't rule out any options for the future because we can't foresee how the conflict will develop," he said.

"We do not give lethal support to the opposition, but I have no doubt that other countries will give greater, lethal support in these circumstances.

"We would prefer an arms embargo on everyone in Syria. We don't approve of sending arms into Syria, but that is happening."