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Syrian rebels gaining ground in Aleppo, opposition says

By Laura Smith-Spark and Samira Said, CNN
updated 11:20 AM EST, Sat December 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At least 60 people are killed across the country Saturday, opposition activists say
  • NEW: Syria's foreign minister meets with U.N. humanitarian chief in Damascus
  • Syrian rebels have seized most of a military academy outside Aleppo, activists say
  • Fierce fighting is reported in the town of Daraya, near Damascus

(CNN) -- Syrian rebels have seized most of a military academy outside Aleppo after weeks of fighting with regime troops, a network of opposition activists said Saturday, in the latest sign that government forces are losing ground.

Rebel brigades have had the sprawling military base in a stranglehold for days.

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A rebel commander told CNN in early December that at least 250 government soldiers had defected since the infantry academy came under siege, with most joining the rebel forces.

The Free Syrian Army now has control of most of the base, the opposition Local Coordination Committees for Syria said Saturday.

Heavy clashes were also reported between regime forces and rebel fighters in and around the town of Daraya, near the capital, Damascus.

Watch: Patriot missiles a warning to Syria's al-Assad

Rebels claim major gains in Damascus
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
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Syrian civil war in photos Syrian civil war in photos
U.S. troops, missiles to Turkey
Assad staying despite slide in power

Regime forces are shelling parts of the city, which has been under siege for weeks, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory also reported shelling by government security forces of the northeastern towns of Harasta and Erbeen, in the Damascus suburbs, Saturday morning.

There are also clashes between rebel fighters and regime forces along the main highway that passes southern Damascus, it said.

The LCC reported airstrikes by fighter jets on southern neighborhoods of the capital.

At least 60 people died across the country on Saturday, including 20 in Damascus and its suburbs, the LCC reported.

CNN cannot independently confirm government or opposition claims about violence and casualties as Syria has severely restricted access for journalists.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem called for an end to U.S. and European Union sanctions against his country in a meeting with U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos in Damascus on Saturday, according to Syria's official news agency, SANA.

Moaellem said the sanctions were responsible for the Syrian people's suffering and urged the United Nations to condemn them. He also called on Amos for U.N. help to reconstruct infrastructure such as hospitals damaged during the 22-month conflict, SANA said.

The U.N. secretary general's special representative for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, also arrived in the capital Friday to assess the impact of the conflict on the country's children, the news agency said.

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Zerrougui will meet Syrian officials, U.N. staffers in the country and members of civil society groups during the four-day visit, it said.

SANA also reported that government forces had continued their mission Friday to clear areas and neighborhoods in Deir Ezzor, in the country's east, from "mercenary terrorists."

The Syrian government refers to the rebel forces as terrorists.

U.S. officials said Friday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control is crumbling at an accelerating pace.

"It's at its lowest point yet," said one senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest assessments. U.S. intelligence believes the decline has accelerated in recent weeks. "The trend is moving more rapidly than it has in the past."

Read more: Syrian refugees on run: 'I want people to feel our pain'

The officials agreed to talk on the condition their names not be used because they were not authorized to discuss the information with the media.

The United States and Germany are sending Patriot missiles and troops to the Turkish border in order to protect their fellow NATO member from potential threats from Syria.

The surface-to-air interceptors would be "dealing with threats that come out of Syria," said U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Friday. Threats would include Syrian strikes inside Turkey and fighting between the government and rebels that extends into Turkey.

Errant Syrian artillery shells struck the Turkish border town of Akcakale and killed five Turkish civilians in October.

The United States has accused Damascus of launching Scud-type artillery from the capital at rebels in the country's north. One Washington official said missiles came close to the border of Turkey, a staunch U.S. ally.

Syria's government called the accusations "untrue rumors" Friday, according to state news agency SANA. Damascus accused Turkey and its partners of instigating rumors to make the government look bad internationally.

Read more: Refugee figures fail to give true picture of Syria crisis

Reports that the Syrian government may be considering the use of chemical weapons have also heightened international concerns in recent days. Syria denies it has such weapons and says it would not use them even if it did.

The Syrian civil war started in March 2011 when a government crackdown on civilian demonstrators morphed into a fight between the regime and rebels.

The conflict has a proxy element, with Sunni countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia backing the rebels and Shiite Iran backing the Alawite regime. The Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

More than 40,000 people have died in the war. The United Nations said on Friday that many Syrians will continue to be killed and maimed after the war ends because of deadly explosives placed in residential areas across the country.

CNN's Arwa Damon, Pierre Meilhan, Yousuf Basil and Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.

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