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Civilians flee shelling by Syrian forces in Aleppo

Rebels accused of setting three oil wells on fire

BEIRUT — Heavy shelling in a neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo sent civilians fleeing for their lives Sunday, and the state news agency accused rebel fighters of trying to topple the government by setting fire to three oil wells.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said civilians were evacuating the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood of Aleppo under heavy shelling by government forces. Rebels took over parts of the neighborhood late last week and were still battling President Bashar Assad’s troops, who are trying to push them out.

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The Observatory said four people, including two children, were killed in Sunday’s shelling by regime tanks positioned around the district.

Rebels set fire to three oil wells in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour on Sunday, causing a daily loss of 4,670 barrels of oil and 52 cubic meters of natural gas, the state news agency SANA reported.

The report accused “terrorists,’’ the government’s term for rebels, of setting the fires after fighting among themselves about how to divide the oil.

Rebels battling Assad have seized large areas of territory in Syria’s oil-rich east, including a number of oil fields. Although they lack the ability to exploit them, their loss represents a setback to the cash-strapped government they are trying to overthrow. SANA said rebels have burned a total of nine wells in recent months, including the three set on fire Sunday.

In a separate development, the government and the opposition blamed each other for killing 11 people found dead near the Lebanese border.

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The Observatory said the bodies of the victims, including eight women, were found near the town of Talkalakh in Homs Province. The group said they were killed when government forces stormed the area. But SANA blamed rebels for the deaths, saying they stormed the area, killed people and looted homes and shops.

Also Sunday, the head of the Syrian opposition’s umbrella body said the group’s military chief, General Salim Idris, plans to visit Arab countries to solicit military aid.

The trip follows a declaration last week by the Arab League that its member nations have a right to aid the Syrian opposition. Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, told the Qatari daily Al Sharq about Idris’s travel plans, but did not say which countries he would visit.

Syria’s civil war has battered the country’s infrastructure and torn its social fabric. After more than two years of conflict, neither Assad’s regime nor the rebels fighting for his ouster appear close to victory.

The conflict began in March 2011 with protests calling for Assad’s ouster. It has since become a civil war, with hundreds of independent rebel groups across Syria fighting Assad’s forces. The government says the war is an international conspiracy to weaken Syria being carried out by terrorists on the ground. The UN says more than 70,000 people have been killed.

Opposition fighters entered the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood of Aleppo late Friday after days of heavy clashes. It was the biggest shift of front lines in the embattled city in months.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a key battleground in the war. Rebels launched an offensive there in July, seizing several districts before the fighting became deadlocked.

Sheikh Maqsoud is predominantly inhabited by minority Kurds in the north of the city. The hillside neighborhood is considered one of the most strategic locations in the city because it overlooks much of Aleppo.

Regime forces have launched counterattacks to try to retake the area because if rebels maintain their positions there it will be easier for them to target regime-held areas with mortar shells.

The media center and the Observatory both reported that residents were fleeing the neighborhood to safer areas, but the number of displaced persons was not immediately known. The Observatory said rebels captured Hassan Seifeddine, a progovernment Sunni Muslim cleric, during the fighting for the neighborhood, killed him and then paraded his body through the neighborhood.

Seifeddine was a strong supporter of the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of the president’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

The opposition is made up of mostly Sunnis, who are the majority among Syrians.

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