The clashes, reportedly involving machine guns and rocket-
propelled grenades, coincided with the arrival of the bodies of three men who were among a group of Lebanese and Palestinians killed last week near the Syrian border town of Tal Kalakh, near Homs, apparently after they crossed into Syria to fight alongside the rebels.
The fighting Sunday underscored concerns that the Syrian war could aggravate sectarian tensions across the region. Anxiety has been particularly high in Tripoli, which has a majority-Sunni population supportive of Syria’s opposition forces and a minority of Alawites sympathetic to Assad.
Meanwhile, Russian and U.S. diplomats met in Geneva with U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for more talks on Syria, the Associated Press reported. In Moscow, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Geneva talks did not mean that Russia was softening its support for longtime ally Assad.
Russia agreed to take part in the talks in Geneva, Lavrov said, on the condition that there would be no demand for Assad to step down. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that Assad would have no place in a free Syria.
“We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad,” Lavrov said Sunday, according to AP. “All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor.”
As the 20-month-old war in Syria continued to rage, there were new signs that Assad’s support continues to slip domestically.
Activists documenting the war’s progress for the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine judges from the northern Syrian city of Idlib had defected.
A video was posted online showing the judges identifying themselves by name and reading a statement that urged other government officials to abandon Assad.
The monitoring group also reported that a jihadist Islamic unit fighting alongside the rebel Free Syrian Army helped seize a government army command center Sunday near the country’s largest city, Aleppo.
The group said both rebels and government troops suffered casualties during fierce fighting at the 111th Regiment’s base in the Sheik Suleiman region of Aleppo province. About 140 soldiers fled to another military base nearby, according to the report.
Among the groups fighting was Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist Islamist organization that is suspected of having links to al-
Qaeda. In recent days, scattered reports have suggested that jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra are gaining ground in places where support for the Free Syrian Army is wearing thin.
Al-Jazeera television broadcast footage of residents complaining about the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo province, where some areas are under rebel control and others are under the Syrian army. The residents said the Free Syrian Army was doing a poor job of providing routine services and was profiteering from the conflict.
Will Englund in Moscow and Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.