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Bomb hits bus in central Syrian province, kills 19

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A roadside bomb struck a bus in Syria's central province on Thursday, killing 19 people, a local government official said.

The explosion in the village of Jbourin also wounded four people on the bus, according to the official from the governor's office in Homs province who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The village is predominantly Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority sect to which President Bashar Assad belongs, but it also has Christians and Sunni Muslims.

It was not immediately clear why the bus was targeted but Syria's civil war, which has left more than 100,000 dead since the crisis erupted in March 2011, has taken increasingly sectarian overtones. Most of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad belong to the majority Sunni sect.

Elsewhere in Syria, al-Qaida-linked gunmen captured a town near the Turkish border after heavy clashes with a rebel group that held the area, an activist group said Thursday.

It was the latest development in what has been a relatively new component in the conflict — stepped-up infighting between extremists with ties to al-Qaida and Western-backed opposition groups.

The U.S. and its European and Gulf allies are increasingly concerned about the rising prominence of Islamists among the rebels, who have been playing a major role in the battles against Assad's forces.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the violence, said members of the al-Qaida offshoot known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant stormed the town of Azaz in the northern Aleppo province on Wednesday evening, forcing the opposition fighters from the Western backed bloc to pull out.

There has also been infighting among rebel groups in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq, and in the north where al-Qaida fighters from the ISIL and their allies in the Nusra Front have been battling Kurdish anti-government rebels for months. The infighting has left hundreds dead.

The fighting in Azaz broke out on Wednesday, when ISIL fighters tried to detain a German doctor they accused of taking pictures of their positions on behalf of their rivals, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory. The doctor, who was a volunteer in the region, escaped but the two rebel factions started fighting.

Amateur videos showed dozens of gunmen with heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks gathering at the nearby border crossing with Turkey. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted.

Abdul-Rahman said three opposition fighters and two jihadis were killed in the fighting. On Thursday, mediation was under way to get the jihadis to leave Azaz, he said.

Also Thursday, the international aid agency Oxfam issued an appeal, saying many donor countries are failing to provide their share of the urgently-needed funding for the humanitarian response to Syria crisis. Oxfam said donors, including France, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Russia, should prioritize funding the U.N.'s $5 billion appeals.

Oxfam's report came ahead of next week's donors meeting in New York. The donor countries have been influential in shaping the international response to the conflict, but should also bear their fair share of the burden of humanitarian aid, the agency said.

"Too many donor countries are not delivering the level of funds that is expected of them," said Colette Fearon, head of Oxfam's Syria program. "While economic times are tough, we are facing the largest man-made humanitarian disaster in two decades and we have to seriously address it."

"The scale of this crisis is unprecedented and some countries must start to show their concerns to the crisis in Syria by putting their hands in their pockets," Fearon said.

The fighting in Syria has forced 7 million people to flee their homes. Five million Syrians have been displaced inside the country and more than 2 million have sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, according to the U.N.


Mroue reported from Beirut.


Syrian children return to school amid war
ALBERT AJI, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Facing extraordinary challenges, millions of Syrian children in government-controlled areas returned to school this week despite the civil war that has left almost 4,000 schools — one in five — damaged, destroyed or sheltering displaced families.

In Damascus, the Syrian capital, a frequent target of mortar shells fired by rebels entrenched in the suburbs, the government insisted on starting the academic year on time, despite the constant threat.

At the Suleiman Hassan Shuaib school in the upscale Mazzeh neighborhood of Damascus, children and parents greeted the start of school with a mix of anticipation and concern.

"The children are worried," said Majed Ibrahim, arriving at the elementary school Wednesday accompanying his three children carrying colorful school bags on their shoulders.

"They no longer sleep at regular times because of the loud sounds of artillery and mortar rounds," Ibrahim said. "Until now, they run to my room in panic whenever they hear loud booms."

Principal Ali Ali said many of the school's 500 students are newcomers who transferred from schools in war-shattered towns and cities across the country. The school now uses an underground depot as a shelter in case of emergency, and employs a psychologist to deal with students suffering fear and trauma.

"It's normal that the habits of some pupils have changed, but in general, a large number of them look courageous and show indifference to what is happening," said Raneem Diab, the psychologist.

She added that the worst hit were the new arrivals from schools in the Damascus suburbs, where fighting between government forces and rebels has raged for months.

"Regretfully, what is happening affects children, but we are trying to raise their morale and bring them up properly despite these difficult circumstances," she said.

Children's activities have been restricted because of the war, so parents said the start of school was a chance to meet friends and have fun after a summer spent largely confined to home.

"The children have been paying a heavy price," said Youssef Abdel-Jelil, a UNICEF representative in Syria.

A recent report by the Britain-based charity Save the Children estimated that hundreds of thousands of children have not attended school in the past two years. It warned that the civil war is reversing one of Syria's main prewar achievements — in 2010, nearly all children of school age had completed primary school.

With the conflict well in its third year, the statistics serve as a testament to a gloomy future in which chances of Syrian children getting a basic education have been halved, Abdel-Jelil told The Associated Press.

At least 4,000 schools — or one in five — have been damaged or destroyed nationwide in the conflict, according to recent estimates by UNICEF. About 1,000 schools serve as shelters for displaced Syrians, and some schools have been transformed into barracks. Since the last school year, almost 2 million Syrian children, aged 6 to 15, have had to leave school because of violence or displacement.

Syrian Education Minister Hazwan al-Wiz insisted that schools would open on time despite the difficulties "because Syria's children are the future." The minister pointed out that some 600 schools have been renovated and 1,000 others have been turned into centers for displaced Syrians.

In rebel-held areas, which have largely descended into chaos, most schools were closed.

Mohammed al-Khatib, an activist based in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, said more than half the schools are closed.

"The security situation is bad and people are worried about explosions and kidnappings," al-Khatib said. "There is no electricity, no services and no heating in winter."

In the absence of a proper school year, UNICEF has launched the "Back to Learning" campaign which aims to reach 1 million conflict-affected primary school children.

In Damascus, children returning to school put on a brave face.

Sitting at his desk in his blue uniform, 12-year-old Anas al-Hakim said he was happy to be back.

"It's better than staying at home. I am not afraid, it's normal now to hear those sounds," he said.


Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk contributed from Beirut.


Rocket trajectory links Syrian military to attack
EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press
ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The trajectory of the rockets that delivered the nerve agent sarin in last month's deadly attack is among the key evidence linking elite Syrian troops based in the mountains overlooking Damascus to the strike that killed hundreds of people, diplomats and human rights officials said Wednesday.

That evidence, however, was dismissed by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who denied that his regime carried out the Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus.

In an interview with Fox News Channel broadcast Wednesday, Assad blamed terrorist groups for using chemical weapons and said Russia has evidence supporting his position.

"We have evidence that the terrorist group has used sarin gas," Assad said, adding that the evidence had been turned over to Russia.

"Second, the Russian satellite, since the beginning of these allegations at the 21st of August — they said that they have information, through their satellite, that the rocket (was) launched from another area. So why ... ignore this point of view?"

The interview was conducted Tuesday in the Syrian capital of Damascus by former Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Fox News contributor, and Fox News Channel Senior Correspondent Greg Palkot.

The attack precipitated the crisis over Syria's chemical weapons. The U.S. threatened a military strike against Syria, which led to a plan negotiated by Moscow and Washington under which the Assad regime is to abandon its chemical weapons stockpile.

A U.N. report released Monday confirmed that chemical weapons were used in the attack but did not ascribe blame.

The United States, Britain and France cited evidence in the report to declare Assad's government responsible. Russia called the report "one-sided" and says it has "serious reason to suggest that this was a provocation" by the rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria's civil war.

Assad agreed, saying the scenario of the attack depicted in the report was unrealistic.

"So, the whole story doesn't even hold together," Assad said. "It's not realistic. So, no, we didn't. In one word, we didn't use any chemical weapons in Ghouta, because if you want to use it, you would harm your troops, you would have harmed the tens of thousands of civilians in Syria, in Damascus."

The report, however, provided data that suggested the chemical-loaded rockets that hit two Damascus suburbs were fired from the northwest, indicating they came from nearby mountains where the Syrian military is known to have major bases.

Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus, is home to one of Assad's three residences and is widely used by elite forces to shell suburbs of the capital. The powerful Republican Guard and army's Fourth Division, headed by Assad's younger brother, Maher, has bases there.

A senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because some of this material was from private meetings, said: "It was 100 percent clear that the regime used chemical weapons."

The diplomat cited five key details, including the scale of the attack, the quality of the sarin, the type of rockets, the warheads used and the rockets' trajectory.

A Human Rights Watch report also said the presumed flight path of the rockets cited by the U.N. inspectors' report led back to a Republican Guard base in Mount Qassioun.

"Connecting the dots provided by these numbers allows us to see for ourselves where the rockets were likely launched from and who was responsible," said Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst for the New York-based group. But, he added, the evidence was "not conclusive."

The HRW report matched what several experts concluded after reading the U.N. report. The U.N. inspectors were not instructed to assess which side was responsible for the attack.

"While the U.N. stuck within its mandate, it has provided enough data to provide an overwhelming case that this had to be government-sponsored," said Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The inspectors described the rockets used to disperse the sarin as a variant of an M14 artillery rocket, with either an original or an improvised warhead, which the rebels are not known to have.

There is no conceivable way to prove the rebels could not have gotten them, Cordesman said, but he added that the modification of the rockets pointed to the regime.

The U.N. diplomat in New York pointed to citations in the U.N. report and a private briefing to the U.N. Security Council by chief inspector Ake Sellstrom that reveal the scale of the attack: The seven rockets examined had a total payload of about 350 liters (about 92 gallons) of sarin, including sophisticated stabilizing elements that match those known to be in the Syrian stockpile.

This makes it "virtually impossible" that it came from any source other than the Syrian government, the diplomat said, adding that there were likely other rockets used that the inspectors couldn't get to.

The diplomat added that the trajectory points directly at known Syrian military bases. "There isn't a shred of evidence in the other direction," he said.

Syrian legislator Issam Khalil denied the Human Rights Watch report.

"These rockets were fired by terrorists in order to draw a military act against Syria," Khalil told The Associated Press in Damascus. "We believe that a fair, transparent and objective international investigation is the only way to specify that side responsible for firing these rockets."

Russia has been Syria's main ally since the conflict began in March 2011, blocking proposed U.N. resolutions that would impose sanctions on Assad's regime and opposing an attempt to authorize the use of force if Syria does not abide by the agreement struck Sept. 14 between Moscow and Washington to rid Damascus of its chemical weapons stockpile.

According to a top Russian diplomat and a Syrian official, Damascus has turned over materials to Russia that aim to show the chemical weapons attack was carried out by the rebels.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying that Syria told Russian officials the material it handed over shows "rebels participating in the chemical attack," but that Moscow has not yet drawn any conclusions.

Ryabkov also told pro-Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today that Russia has submitted to the U.N. Security Council what Moscow called credible evidence that suggests the Syrian government did not fire the chemical weapons.

"We are unhappy about this (U.N.) report, we think that the report was distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it was built is insufficient," Ryabkov said.

The reports did not specify the nature of the new material turned over by Syria to Russia, which Ryabkov said would be closely analyzed.

According to ITAR-Tass, Ryabkov said Russia was "inclined to treat with great seriousness the material from the Syrian side about the involvement of the rebels in the chemical attack of Aug. 21."

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the U.N. is checking with Russia's U.N. Mission to find out exactly what Ryabkov said but "on the face of it, these reported remarks are an attempt to call into question the secretary-general's investigation team ... and the credibility of its thoroughly objective report." He stressed that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "has the fullest confidence in the professionalism of his team and their work and findings."

The chief U.N. chemical weapons inspector said his team will return to Syria "within weeks" to complete the investigation it had started before the Aug. 21 attack and other alleged uses of chemical weapons in the country.

Sellstrom told The Associated Press the team will evaluate "allegations of chemical weapons use from both sides, but perhaps mainly from the Syrian government's side."

He said he doesn't currently think there is a need for more investigations of the Aug. 21 attacks, but said "if we receive any additional information it will be included next time we report."

The first step in getting rid of Syria's chemical weapons is for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to endorse the agreement reached by the U.S. and Russia to put its stockpile and precursors under international control for later destruction. A senior U.N. diplomat said a U.S.-Russia draft spelling out details of how this will be done is expected to be circulated to members of the OPCW's executive board later Wednesday. The board is scheduled to meet Friday to make a decision.

Assad said his government would abide by the agreement reached with U.S. and Russian officials to give up his chemical weapons. He says he has received estimates that destroying the stockpiles would cost $1 billion and would take roughly a year.

"We are committed to the full requirement of this agreement," Assad said.

"It's not about will," Assad added. "It's about technique."

Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said the main purpose of a new U.N. resolution currently under discussion "is to make the framework agreement reached between the United States and Russia in Geneva, and the decision that will be taken by the OPCW Executive Council, legally binding in a Security Council resolution that is verifiable and enforceable."

The five permanent members of the Security Council were meeting again Wednesday to try to agree on the text.

Assad on Wednesday received a U.S. delegation of former members of Congress and anti-war activists, including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

In the contested northern city of Aleppo, a group of volunteers learned how to deal with chemical weapons attacks in a drill inside a school. Their teacher, Mohammad Zayed, a 21-year-old former chemistry student, helped them put on gas masks and protective suits.

He also described the effects of various chemical weapons and how to help people with the limited resources available.

Three gas masks and 24 protective suits were given to them after rebels gained control of a military base belonging to forces loyal to Assad. The volunteers are distributing leaflets to residents on how to react to an attack.


Lederer reported from the United Nations. AP writers Jim Heintz and Lynn Berry in Moscow, Kimberly Dozier and Deb Riechmann in Washington and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.



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