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June 29, 2017

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Over 100 soldiers die as Syria rebels on offensive: watchdog

DAMASCUS -- Syrian rebels have gone on the offensive killing more than 100 soldiers in two days, a watchdog said on Friday, as tension between Syria and Turkey escalated over cargo seized from a Syrian Air jet.

Fourteen soldiers died in an attack on an army post in the southern province of Daraa on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, a day after the army suffered 92 losses, the highest daily total for the military of the 19-month conflict.

With an average of 20 deaths per day, the army has lost about 10,000 soldiers, with at least an equal number wounded, in the conflict, a military hospital official told AFP. In August, the same source reported more than 8,000 deaths.

As fighting raged on the ground, including in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, a war of words between Syria and Turkey grew angrier after Ankara said it had found military supplies on a passenger plane it intercepted en route between Moscow and Damascus.

The Syrian foreign ministry accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of lying when he said the jet had been carrying "equipment and ammunition shipped to the Syrian defense ministry" from a Russian military supplier.

Turkey's allies have warned of the risks embedded in the conflict between the neighbors, which have exchanged fire over their border in recent days, amid fears that the Syrian civil war could set off a regional conflagration.

Amid the growing alarm, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Friday he has hastily scheduled a visit to NATO partner Turkey.

Westerwelle, who is on a trip to China, said in a statement he would hold talks Saturday with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul on "the situation in Syria and on the Turkish-Syrian border."

"The Syria situation has escalated. That fills us with the greatest concern," he said. "It is important that no one pours oil on the fire. We are counting on moderation and de-escalation."

The Britain-based Observatory said that Thursday had marked one of the deadliest days of fighting since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March last year, with at least 240 people killed across the country, including 92 soldiers, 67 rebel fighters and 81 civilians.

Of the soldiers killed on Thursday, 36 died in fighting in Idlib province, where many of the fiercest clashes have taken place over the past three months, it said.

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