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Syria: Chemical rocket hits Aleppo, mortars shower Damascus


DAMASCUS, (Xinhua): A chemical rocket slammed a town in Syria's northern province of Aleppo Tuesday, killing at least 25 people, with around seven mortar shells landing at an upscale district of the capital Damascus at a time the exiled opposition elected a prime minister for a provisional government.

At least 25 people were killed and 130 others wounded Tuesday when armed men fired a rocket stuffed with chemical materials at the Khan al-Asal town in Aleppo, the state-media said, accusing the armed opposition fighters of being behind it. However, the rebels denied the accusations and turned the accusation finger against the government.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi slammed the attack as " dangerous escalation," adding that such a move mirrors the shift in using the arms that are being sent through neighboring countries to the opposition fighters.

"In today's crime, the terrorists have used an internationally- prohibited weapon," Zoubi said, reiterating that the attack is the first achievement of the would-be interim government by the opposition.

Meanwhile, Syria's state TV aired footage of the aftermath of a chemical weapon attack. The TV camera panned between different rooms of a hospital where tens of wounded people laid on beds with oxygen masks covering their faces, while doctors and nurses dressed in medical scrubs were examining the injured.

A patient appeared unconscious with white liquid trickling out of his mouth and nose. The footage also showed a kid seemingly traumatized from the incident.

For his side, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad urged the international community to shoulder its responsibilities regarding the attack.

"This is another crime to be added to the record of the terrorist groups backed by some Arab countries in the Gulf and Western countries, particularly Turkey, which we held responsible for the crimes against our civilians," Mikdad said.

According to Mikdad, Syria will send a letter to the UN Security Council, calling for shouldering its responsibilities to put an end to the terrorist crimes.

The incident has been met with condemnation from Russia and Iran, Syria's main allies, while the United States said there is no proof that the rebels were behind the attack.

The unprecedented move came also as Britain and France were pushing the European Union (EU) to lift an arms embargo on rebels in the hope of tilting the fight in favor of the opposition.

Meanwhile, seven mortar shells fired by armed groups landed at the upscale district of Malki in central Damascus, smashing cars and leaving many people injured, witnesses told Xinhua.

The attack came just one day after three mortars slammed the al- Mazzeh area and left damages only.

The mortars apparently were meant to hit army and intelligence headquarters in that sensitive part of Damascus, but the rebels' efforts have so far failed, as the mortars missed their targets and landed in populated areas.

The mortar attacks have become daily routine, as the rebels seem determined to gain ground and wobble the Syrian government grip on power in the heavily fortified capital.

In Turkey's Istanbul, several exiled opposition groups, mainly the National Coalition, on Tuesday elected Ghassan Hitto as the first prime minister of an interim Syrian government, a move that dismissed from opposing at home as "a blow to all political efforts" to solve the crisis.

The opposition's move came almost a week after the Arab League demanded it to form a government in order to be given Syria's seat in the bloc based on Qatar's demand.

"Forming an interim government that carries no real weight in the society and the state is wrong, and we think it would further complicate the matters in Syria," Safwan Akkash, a leading member of the Syria-based National Coordination Body (NCB), told Xinhua in an interview.

Akkash said that the exiled government, with the support of its Western backers, would not operate on a broad base of support.

"I think that the actual weight of such a government emanates from its foreign backers, no more than that..." he said, adding that Syrians "don't want to have two Syrian governments, because such a move would have bad repercussions."

He said the NCB supports a transitional government based on the initiative introduced by UN joint special representative to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and the Geneva Communique.

"We support a transitional government that combines the opposition and some officials from the current regime after negotiations based on the initiative of Lakhdar Brahimi," Akkash said, noting that there is an international tendency toward a political solution in Syria "and this approach is not only Western but has become more universal."

Meanwhile, Hmaidi Abdullah, a political expert, told Xinhua that such move would deepen the crack among the opposition groups "because it is rejected by al-Qaida fighters on ground. There will be a conflict among the opposition regarding the legitimacy of such government."

"The step also disrupts the Geneva communique and I think those people will now start to solicit international recognition. I think the move came after pressure from the Gulf States in order to take revenge from the Syrian administration," he said.

Back to Istanbul, newly-elected prime minister of the Syrian opposition's interim government in exile, Ghassan Hitto, rejected to hold dialogue with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and said his first priority is to bring down Assad's administration.

"The major mission of the (opposition interim) government is to create the circumstances to hasten the downfall of the regime," Hitto said, adding that "there are no more rooms for dialoguing the regime, because it's going further in killing and displacing people."

Hitto, 50, is a naturalized Syrian-born American, and left Syria in early 1980s. He received an MBA at Indiana Wesleyan University and worked as an information technology executive in Texas. Hitto, of Kurdish roots, and his wife, Suzanne, an American schoolteacher, have four children, all born in the United States.

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