Syrian rebels yesterday seized control of a sector of Sheikh Suleiman army base, west of Aleppo, bringing them closer to holding a large swath of territory extending to the Turkish border in the north while Russia dismissed speculation that it was preparing for Bashar Al Assad's possible exit from power.
The rebels took control of Regiment 111 and three other company posts located inside the base after fierce fighting overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "Two rebels and one soldier were killed, while five soldiers were captured. The prisoners said that 140 of their men had fled to the scientific research centre on the base," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Sheikh Suleiman sprawls over nearly 200 hectares of rocky hills about 25 kilometres from Aleppo city, an area now almost completely under rebel control.
Russia, Syria's main arms supplier, dismissed suggestions from observers that its support for Mr Al Assad might be softening. "We are not holding any talks on the fate of Assad," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the special UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
"All attempts to present the situation differently are rather shady," Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.
Washington and its Nato allies, who have thrown their weight behind the opposition, are pressing for Mr Al Assad's departure to end the conflict in Syria, which has taken more than 40,000 lives.
Elsewhere in northern Syria, 10 were reported killed in regime shelling of the town of Maraayan, while five civilians, including a child, were killed as Ahsam village in Idlib province was shelled, the Observatory said.
The watchdog also reported clashes around the Wadi Daif military base, which rebels have been trying to take since seizing the nearby town of Maaret Al Numan two months ago.
Across the border in Lebanon, meanwhile, sectarian clashes linked to the conflict in Syria killed at least six people and wounded 40 in the northern city of Tripoli, a Lebanese security official said.
The Observatory said the Syrian army clashed with rebels in the capital's southern Qadam neighbourhood and on the southern and northeast outskirts of Damascus, pressing ahead with its bombardment of rebel-held towns.
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said that Syrian security forces killed 23 people, including 11 in and around Damascus, yesterday.
Syrian activists also said nine state judges and prosecutors had defected to the opposition.
The Observatory for Human Rights said the latest defectors were from the northern city of Adlib. In a video statement posted online yesterday, the nine judges identify themselves by name as one of them reads a joint statement and urges others to break ranks with Mr Al Assad.
* Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse