Syria lashes out at US move to arm rebels

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By ALBERT AJI, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria lashed out Thursday at the U.S. decision to send arms to rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's troops, saying Washington is unsuitable to act as a broker at any peace negotiations in Geneva.

"The American intensions seek to continue the cycle of violence and terrorism in Syria in order to destabilize security and stability in the region," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Obama administration opposed providing any lethal assistance to Syria's rebels until last month, but is now moving ahead with sending weapons to vetted rebels after securing the approval of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

The White House acknowledged that momentum in the conflict has shifted as the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and Iran have helped Assad's forces.

President Barack Obama and his national security team still have yet to say publicly what weapons they'll provide the Syrian opposition and when they'll deliver them. There has also been concern in the West that U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked groups.

At the same time, the United States and Russia have been working to set up a peace conference in Geneva to try end Syria's civil war, now in its third year. More than 93,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011, according to the United Nations.

No official date has been set for the Geneva conference as the opposition refuses to attend any talks that are not about Assad's departure. Government officials say participation in the conference should be without preconditions.

"Washington's decision to send arms to terrorists in Syria confirms that the American administration is not fair in efforts to find a political solution and hold an international conference in Geneva," said Syrian state TV, citing an unnamed Foreign Ministry official.

By contrast, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group welcomed Washington's decision on weapons, describing it as a "move forward."

The Syrian National Coalition said in a statement Thursday that it was committed to ensuring the arms reach only those loyal to the Coalition and its affiliated military councils — indicating it would try to prevent U.S. weapons from reaching al-Qaida fighters in Syria.

Also Thursday, Syrian government troops bombarded the central city of Homs and, backed by Hezbollah fighters, tried to storm a rebel-held neighborhood in the area, according to activist groups.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces bombarded the northern neighborhood of Khaldiyeh in preparation for a ground assault. It had no immediate word on casualties.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said troops were hitting Khaldiyeh with mortars.

In late June, government forces launched a major offensive on Homs, a strategic city of about 1 million residents located on the road between the capital Damascus and regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground, said government forces captured the central town of Sukhna in Homs province.

The fighting there killed several rebels, including the local commander of an al-Qaida-linked group, the Observatory said. It did not name the commander of Jabhat al-Nusra group, also known as the Nusra Front in English, but said he was an Iraqi citizen.

The fighting in Syria has increasingly taken on sectarian undertones as Assad enjoys support from many in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the rebels are mainly Sunnis.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

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