DAMASCUS // Syrian rebels launched attacks on the military yesterday, in a campaign increasingly targeting its air power.
It came as Russia, a key ally of the regime, said it would be naive to expect that Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, would not fight back.
Rebels captured the main air defence building in Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "Preliminary reports" suggested they had seized ground-to-air missiles, it added.
The assault followed a rebel attack on the Abu Zohur airbase in Idlib province in the north-west, where the Free Syrian Army said it had downed a MiG warplane this week.
With the insurgency intensifying, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said western and Arab calls for Mr Al Assad to unilaterally withdraw his troops amounted to a demand for "capitulation" that they had no right to make.
Government forces killed at least 111 people yesterday, including 35 in Damascus, the opposition Local Coordination Committees (LCC) said. Government forces shelled areas of Homs and Aleppo and used tank fire in the Damascus neighbourhoods of Tadamon and Hajar Aswad.
During their assault in Albu Kamal, rebels also captured 16 air defence personnel and attacked the nearby Hamdan airbase.
The seizure was a "major coup" for the rebels, said the observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman. It had sparked retaliatory shelling in the town of 60,000 that killed at least five civilians, he added.
The regime has increasingly relied on the air force to crush rebel positions. Yesterday, government forces continued their assault on Aleppo, pounding the country's second-largest city with bombs from warplanes and mortar rounds as soldiers clashed with rebels in its narrow streets, activists said.
The latest violence showed that government troops were still struggling to clear the city of lightly-armed rebel forces nearly five weeks after they stormed their way in.
The clashes in Aleppo were concentrated in the neighbourhoods of Hanano, Bustan Al Qasr, Sukkari and Maysar. The observatory reported injuries and damage to buildings.
It was the second day of a rebel push in Aleppo, dubbed "Northern Volcano", targeting security facilities in the city and the surrounding province, including an artillery training school, a compound of the feared air force intelligence and a large army checkpoint.
The state-run news agency Sana said army Brigadier General Taher Subeira had been killed by a "terrorist" who placed a bomb under his car while it was parked in front of his Damascus home and detonated it when he got into the vehicle.
The observatory said the bodies of five unknown people were found in the neighbourhood of Qadam, shot execution-style. Other clashes were reported in Idlib province on the border with Turkey, in Daraa near the Jordanian frontier, and in the central province of Homs near Lebanon, activists said.
The fighting comes as the veteran UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi began his peacemaking mission, replacing Kofi Annan who quit after his six-point plan, including an April 12 ceasefire, failed.
Mr Brahimi said Mr Al Assad's regime should realise that the need for change is both "urgent" and "necessary". He also told the Syrian government that it must respond to the "legitimate" demands of the Syrian people.
Unlike Mr Annan, who was based in Geneva for six months, Mr Brahimi will make New York his centre of operations, where he hopes he can better influence the UN security council to unite around a plan to end the violence. Russia and China used their vetoes on the council to block UN sanctions against the Syrian regime, despite entreaties by the US and other western nations.
In talks with the Syrian prime minister, Wael Al Halaqi, in Tehran on Friday, the UN chief Ban Ki-moon said the regime must stop using its heavy weapons. But Russia's leading diplomat said yesterday such calls were "completely unrealistic".
"When our partners say that the government must stop first and withdraw all its soldiers and weapons from cities - and only then call on the opposition to do the same - well, this is a completely unworkable scheme," said Mr Lavrov.
Iran would take action if the United States were to carry out an act of "stupidity" and attack Syria, an Iranian military official was quoted as saying yesterday - but the comments, by Mohammad Ali Assoudi, the deputy for culture and propaganda of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, later disappeared from the state-linked agency website.
Sana, meanwhile, reported that 225 detainees who had taken part in anti-government protests had been released yesterday.
The amnesty by authorities is the second in a week, after 378 prisoners from Damascus and Homs were freed on Monday.
* Associated Press, Bloomberg News,Agence France-Presse