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Syrian rebels seize coastal area

Syrian rebels have seized control of a tourist site by the Turkish border that allowed them a small foothold by the Mediterranean for the first time since the uprising erupted against president Bashar Assad, activists say.

The reported capture of the seaside strip known as Samra came after rebels severed one of the Assad government's last links to the Turkish border by seizing the Kassab crossing and a predominantly Armenian Christian town of the same name on Sunday.

It provides a boost for opposition fighters who were pushed out of key parts of the Syrian border with Lebanon over the past few weeks.

This is the first time rebels have had any sea access since the uprising began in March 2011, said an activist who uses the name Abu Salah al-Haffawi and Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground.

The tourist strip, Samra, straddles the Syria-Turkey border. The Turkish government has allowed Syrian rebels to ship in aid, weapons and men through its border crossing. Still, Samra has no port, and Syrian military aircraft are likely to bomb rebels trying to use any sea passage.

There was no government confirmation of Samra's capture.

A video uploaded to social networks showed a group of rebels by the sea, some sitting on rocks and raising their guns. "This is the village of Samra, under the rule of rebels," said the narrator of the video. "This is the first sea access on the Mediterranean."

Activists say the rebels are from the Ansar al-Sham rebel group.

Rebels also seized a nearby mountainous point known as Observatory 45, said the facility.

Fighting was still raging through the area today.

Syrian military aircraft flew four sorties and bombed Kassab, with rising smoke from the bombs visible from the Turkish border crossing of Yayladagi, according to private Turkish news agency Dogan.

Since yesterday, more than 80 wounded Syrians have been taken across the border into Turkey for treatment and nine of them died, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, pro-Assad forces took control over the nearby Niser hills, the Syrian-state run news agency SANA said. Rebels had previously occupied the area, activists say.

Rebels launched their offensive on Friday in Latakia province, the ancestral home of the Assad family and a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot that is one of the main pillars of support for his rule.

Rebels in Latakia are mostly from hardline Sunni groups, including the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, and many see the Alawites as heretics.

In another video uploaded from social networking sites, a rebel leader identified as Abdullah al-Muheisini warned Alawites that his fighters would capture Alawite "land, homes and possessions, with the will of God".

But in an effort to show the rebels had no intention of hurting Christians, Mr al-Haffawi posted a video from inside a church in Kassab to show that it was left untouched.

Last August, rebel brigades captured around a dozen villages in the Latakia mountains before a government counter-offensive expelled them.

Afterwards, Human Rights Watch said nearly 200 civilians, including children, the elderly and the handicapped, were killed. It said rebel abuses during the operation amounted to war crimes.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 140,000 people, displaced at least a quarter of its pre-war population of 23 million and triggered a humanitarian crisis across the region.

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