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Syria army tightens screw on rebels

The Syrian army has recaptured most of the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib near the Turkish border, pushing hundreds of military defectors out of a major base they had held for months.

The three-day operation to capture the city followed closely after a similar offensive to dislodge the opposition from another key piece of territory it had controlled, the Baba Amr district in central Homs.

The two victories gave President Bashar Assad's regime unmistakable momentum as it tries to crush the armed opposition fighters.

A pledge from Syria's staunch ally Russia that Moscow will continue selling weapons to the regime was yet another boost. And a diplomatic bid by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan to broker a ceasefire and start negotiations failed over the weekend.

Still, international pressure is more intense than ever, with the US considering military options.

Activists reported fresh violence in central province of Hama near Homs, the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere, killing dozens.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said troops have planted landmines near its borders with Turkey and Lebanon along routes used by people fleeing the violence and trying to reach safety in neighbouring countries.

The pro-government Al-Watan daily and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops were in control of Idlib. The observatory said the army was still facing some resistance pockets in three Idlib areas.

Idlib, a predominantly Sunni city of some 150,000 people about 100 miles north of Homs, was among the first to fall in the hands of army defectors last summer. Rebels were in control of a large parts of the city in the past months with troops present in some areas.

The Free Syrian Army, made up of army defectors and protesters who have taken up weapons, has been dealt two major defeats. But the conflict is far from over. The FSA has appealed for outside help in getting weapons to help the group put up a fight.

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