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Middle East

Aid workers hurt in Syria explosion


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has revealed three aid workers suffered minor injuries in Syria when an explosion hit their convoy.

The group said the two Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and one ICRC staff member were travelling with other aid workers from Aleppo to Idlib when the blast hit their marked vehicles.

A spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva said the aid workers were taken to a medical facility and that their injuries are minor.

Hicham Hassan told reporters it is the first time Red Cross workers have been injured since the start of violence in Syria last year.

He added that the ICRC does not know if it was targeted in the explosion, or who was responsible for it.

Earlier, Syrian forces pushed out scores of rebels holed up in a rebellious area near the Mediterranean coast, with state television claiming they had regained control of the region following eight days of fierce fighting.

The mountainous Haffa region is one of several areas where government forces are battling rebels for control in escalating violence. Recovering it is particularly important to the regime because the town is about 20 miles from president Bashar Assad's hometown of Kardaha in Latakia province.

Latakia is the heartland of the Alawite minority to which Mr Assad and the ruling elite belong, although there is a mix of religious groups there.

France has said Syria is already in a civil war, echoing a similar statement by UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous on Tuesday.

The new French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told a news conference in Paris: "If you can't call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it."

He added that to stop "this civil war from worsening," Mr Assad must leave power and Syrian opposition groups must start a new government. He said he will be in personal contact with the opposition inside Syria.

Earlier, Syria's foreign ministry expressed "astonishment" over Mr Ladsous' statement that the country was already in a civil war. The ministry said it lacked objectivity, was "far from reality" and inaccurate.

A spokesman said: "Syria is not witnessing a civil war but rather an armed conflict to uproot terrorism and confront killings, kidnappings, bombings ... and other brutal acts by armed terrorist groups."

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned two days ago that Mr Assad's forces could commit massacres in Haffa, drawing condemnation from the Syrian Foreign Ministry which accused the US of "blatant interference" in the country's internal affairs.

State television said regime forces had "cleansed" Haffa from "armed terrorist groups", while the foreign ministry urged UN observers to immediately head there.

"This invitation comes in the framework of the observers' mission to find out what is happening on the ground and to check what the terrorist groups have done," a statement said.

It was not immediately clear whether UN observers in Syria would be able to reach Haffa. On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the observers' vehicles as they approached the area, forcing them to turn back. The observers were not hurt. Spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said they have been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.

Hundreds of rebel fighters were believed to have been holed up there and pulled out overnight after intense fighting in Haffa and nearby villages.

The rebel fighters fled the villages of Zanqufa, Dafil and Bakkas under the cover of night, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing a network of activists on the ground.

On another front, fireballs exploded over the central city of Homs, where Syrian forces fired a continuous rain of shells that slammed into the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Khaldiyeh, Jouret al-Shayyah and the old city.

But even after a week of intense shelling, rebels were still clinging to the area. Footage posted by activists from there showed a city covered in a plume of heavy grey smoke. The intermittent thud of shells was heard, followed by explosions as they slammed into buildings.

In the nearby town of Deir Baalbah, rebels and troops exchanged fire in residential areas, with sustained gunfire echoing through the area, according to amateur video that purported to be from the scene.

In the rebel-held town of Rastan north of Homs, six youths were killed in shelling, activists said. The circumstances of their deaths were not immediately clear.

Turkey said it was concerned that the conflict could spill over its borders as the number of Syrian refugees increased to more than 29,000.

Deputy foreign minister Naci Koru told state-run TRT television: "We are disturbed by the possibility that it could spread to us."

The minister said Turkey had seen another 1,400 Syrian refugees arrive in the past two days.

Activists say some 14,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict so far. Mr Abdul-Rahman said they included 3,400 soldiers.

The state news agency, SANA, said that "an armed terrorist group" killed the former head of the Syrian Football Union, Marwan Arafat.

SANA said Mr Arafat was attacked as he returned from Jordan to the neighbouring southern province of Daraa. It said his wife was critically injured, but offered no other details.