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updated: 12/21/2013 1:13 PM

Syrian rebels seize strategic hospital in Aleppo

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Associated Press

BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels seized control a strategic hospital near Aleppo, giving a boost to beleaguered anti-government forces in the northern city after days of relentless airstrikes on opposition-held neighborhoods there, activists said Saturday.

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The rebels' capture of Kindi hospital does not drastically alter the broader battle for Aleppo, which has been divided for more than a year between opposition and government forces. But it does provide a lift to a rebel movement that has been dogged in recent months by infighting that allowed President Bashar Assad's forces to chip away at rebel-held territory on several fronts.

For months, rebels had been trying to capture Kindi hospital, which is close to the besieged central prison on the edge of town and where the government is believed to be holding thousands of detainees.

The hospital finally fell to the rebels on Friday, according to two activist groups -- the Aleppo Media Center and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Aleppo-based activist Abu al-Hassan Marea said the rebels who overran the hospital included both conservative Muslim groups and al-Qaida-linked factions.

At least 35 rebels were killed in the battle for Kindi, the activists said. There was no immediate death toll available for government forces.

A Syrian freelance photographer who worked for foreign news outlets, including Reuters, also was killed in the fighting, activists said. The photographer, Molhem Barakat, was with his brother, a rebel fighter, inside a carpet factory near the hospital when they were both killed, said Hassoun Abu Faisal of the Aleppo Media Center. Activists also circulated a photograph of Barakat's corpse, which matched other images of him.

Abu Faisal said Barakat, who activists said was 18 years old, began working as a photographer about five months ago, was considered talented and quickly sold photographs to foreign media. Reuters said Saturday that Barakat had taken pictures for the news agency on a freelance basis.

Media watchdog groups have ranked Syria the world's most dangerous country for reporters. The Committee to Project Journalists says 22 journalists have been killed in Syria this year, not counting Barakat. More than 30 journalists are believed to be currently held by the Syrian government or rebel forces.

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces continued dumping so-called barrel bombs -- containers containing hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives and fuel -- over opposition-held parts of Aleppo. The British-based Observatory said at least six people were killed in Saturday's air raids, but other groups gave higher death tolls.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders has said that over four days this week government airstrikes killed at least 189 people and wounded 879 more.

Syria's civil war, now into its third year, has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists, while millions have been forced from their homes by the fighting.

Syrian officials have not commented on the air raids in Aleppo, the country's largest city and once its commercial hub.

Aleppo has been a major front in the civil war since the rebels launched an offensive there in mid-2012. The city has been carved into opposition- and government-held areas.

The escalation comes ahead of peace talks scheduled to begin on Jan. 22 in Switzerland. The timing has sparked speculation that Assad may be trying to strengthen his position on the ground and expose opposition weaknesses before sitting down at the negotiating table.

"I think it will have the reverse effect," said Aleppo-based activist Abu Raed in a Skype interview, as explosions crackled in the background. "The helicopters come. We stop and look. We keep looking until the barrel drops. We shout out God's name. The civil defense comes to dig out people. The media activists go film."

Both Marea and Raed asked that they be identified only by their nicknames, fearing for their own security.

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