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updated: 2/28/2013 7:05 AM

Syrian clashes reach 12th century Aleppo mosque

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Associated Press

BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels clashed Thursday with government forces around a historic 12th century mosque inside the walled old city of Aleppo, activists said.

The rebels won new support from the Obama administration. The U.S. pledged an additional $60 million in assistance and -- in a significant policy shift -- will for the first time provide nonlethal aid like food and medical supplies.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the new support and the decision to back the rebel fighters on the sidelines of an international conference on Syria in Rome, where European nations were also expected to signal their intention to provide fresh assistance to the opposition, possibly including defensive military hardware.

The rebels have made a number of strategic gains in northern Syria in recent weeks, including the capture of a hydroelectric Dam and some military bases. They have also launched attacks deep in the heart of Damascus, President Bashar Assad's seat of power.

But at the same time, the opposition has grown more critical of the international community, accusing it of not providing adequate support.

In Aleppo, a key battleground in the civil war, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were clashes around the 12th century Umayyad Mosque in the walled old city with rebels controlling part of it and government troops holding another part.

The Observatory, which relies on reports from activists on the ground, also said rebels continue to battle troops for control of a police academy west of Aleppo.

Rebels launched an offensive on Aleppo, Syria's largest urban center and its commercial capital, in July 2012.

In months of street fighting, opposition fighters have slowly expanded the turf under their control. The fighting has left much of the city in ruins, and caused damage to its rich archaeological and cultural heritage.

The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Aleppo, sits near a medieval covered market in the Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The mosque was heavily damaged in October 2012 just weeks after a fire gutted the old city's famed market. Clashes at the historic site have raged for days.

Fighting also intensified in the outskirts of Aleppo around a police academy that has recently emerged as a new front in the battle for the city.

The police complex includes educational facilities for recruits and several army outposts to protect it. Anti-regime activists say the government has turned the facility into a military base, using it to shell opposition areas in Aleppo's countryside as well as rebel-held neighborhoods inside the city.

In the central city of Homs, state media reported a car bombing with some casualties and extensive material damage.

State-run SANA news agency said the car bomb was detonated by terrorists, a term the regime uses for rebels. It did not say how many people were killed in the blast.

An official in the Homs governor's office told The Associated Press that the city was hit by two explosions, killing four people and injuring at least six. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

He said some of the injured are in critical condition.

In Rome, Kerry is meeting Syrian opposition leaders and their Western backers in a bid to bolster Assad's political opponents and speed up his ouster.

The U.S. and its European allies have been reluctant to arm the opposition fighters on the ground for fear the weapons could end up in the hands of Islamic militants, battling Assad's troops among the rebels.

So far, the U.S. has largely limited its assistance to the Syrian opposition to funding for communications and other logistical equipment.

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