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Turkey bans Syrian planes from its air space, rebels gain

BEIRUT/AMMAN -- Turkey has banned all Syrian aircraft from its air space as it takes an increasingly firm stance against President Bashar al-Assad, while Syrian rebels said on Sunday they had made more gains in a key province near the Turkish border.

Human Rights Watch said Syrian government forces had dropped Russian-made cluster bombs over civilian areas in the past week as they battled to reverse rebel advances, an act which rights groups say can constitute a war crime.

NATO-member Turkey has increasingly taken on a leadership role in the international coalition ranked against Assad.

Turkish confrontation with Syria increased in the past two weeks because of cross-border shelling and escalated on October 10 when Ankara forced down a Syrian airliner en route from Moscow, accusing it of carrying Russian munitions for Assad's military.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Sunday Turkish air space had been closed to Syrian planes. Syria banned Turkish planes from flying over its territory on Saturday.

"We made a new decision yesterday and informed Syria. We closed our air space to civilian Syrian flights as well as military flights," Davutoglu said.

Russia has said there were no weapons on the ground plane and that it was carrying a legal cargo of radar. But it moved to cool friction with Ankara - Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the incident would not hurt "solid" relations.

The bloodshed inside Syria has worsened markedly in the past two months although neither side has been able to gain a distinct advantage. Combat has been reported nationwide but the crucial strategic battles are being fought in an arc through western Syria, where most of the population lives.

Rebels surrounded an army garrison on Sunday near a northwestern town, in the latest push to seize more territory near the border with Turkey, opposition activists said. Rebels also posted video on the Internet purportedly showing a fighter jet they had shot down in the area the previous day.

Several hundred soldiers were trapped in the siege of a base in Urum al-Sughra, on the main road between the contested city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial and industrial hub, and Turkey.

"Rebels attacked an armored column sent from Aleppo to rescue the 46th Regiment at Urum al-Sughra and stopped it in its tracks," Firas Fuleifel, one of the activists told Reuters by phone from Idlib province, west of Aleppo. He said the jet was shot down while trying to provide air support to the column.

Rebels say they have been extending their control of the rugged agricultural province throughout the past week, capturing several towns on the border and making gains in the al-Rouge plain west of the city of Idlib, the provincial capital.

The province is the main base and supply route for rebels fighting urban warfare against Assad's forces for control of Aleppo, a city of several million people that could determine the course of the 18-month rebellion against Assad.

After four days of heavy fighting in the town of Azmarin and surrounding villages along the border with Turkey's Hatay province, the rebels appeared to have a fragile hold there.

"These areas are the last areas around the border where Assad has control. If he loses these then all of the border around Hatay will be under the control of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army," rebel fighter Ahmad Qasem told Reuters, after crossing into Turkey.

"Assad's army is taking its last breath in this area."

Assad's forces still control the city of Idlib on a main highway linking Aleppo to the port of Latakia, making the route an important rebel target.

"Lots of roadblocks of Idlib have been taken out. Rebel focus is now on supplying the Aleppo highway," said Abu Ali, an activist using an alias.

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