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July 22, 2017

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Rebel mortar fire kills 21 at Assad election rally: group

DAMASCUS--Syrian rebels have shelled a rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad's re-election, killing 21 people, after the army cut a key rebel supply route to the main northern city of Aleppo.

Mortar fire, which hit a tent where Assad supporters had gathered in the southern city of Daraa late Thursday, also wounded at least 30 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Assad faces two little-known challengers in the June 3 vote that exiled rebels and their Western backers have labeled a farce, and is widely expected to clinch a third seven-year term.

The Observatory said a child was among the dead in the attack, the first on Assad supporters since campaigning got underway earlier this month.

Pro-government militiamen were also among those killed in the attack, carried out by an Islamist rebel brigade, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP the attack "is a clear message from rebels to the regime that there is not one safe area in which to hold the election."

As it is, the vote will only take place in regime-controlled areas.

Earlier Thursday, the army broke a 13-month rebel siege on Aleppo prison.

That put regime forces within reach of Castello Road, which rebels in Aleppo have relied on as a supply route leading to a rear base in the countryside.

Rebels had repeatedly attacked the prison since April 2013, hoping to free approximately 3,500 detainees reportedly being held in dire conditions.

The prison had nearly 4,000 inmates before the siege, including Islamists, but the Observatory said some 600 prisoners had died due to poor humanitarian conditions and bombardment.

In that vein, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said humanitarian access throughout Syria was worsening, blaming the government in particular but also the rebels.

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