AMMAN (Reuters) - Opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib visited rebel-held towns in north Syria for the first time on Sunday as rebel fighters seized an army outpost from President Bashar al-Assad's forces outside the contested northern city of Aleppo, activists said.
The capture of the police academy at Khan al-Asal, used by Assad's forces as an artillery base to support troops still holding around 40 percent of the northern city, came after days of fighting in which rebels killed 150 soldiers, while sustaining heavy casualties, they said.
In an attempt to consolidate those gains on the ground and strengthen links between Assad's military and civilian foes, Alkhatib crossed into northern Syria from neighboring Turkey and toured the towns of Jarablus and Minbij.
Earlier he attended a meeting of 220 rebel commanders and opposition campaigners in the Turkish city of Gaziantep to elect an administration for Aleppo province, home to 6 million people.
Alkhatib, a 52-year-old former preacher at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was chosen in November to head the coalition of political opposition to Assad. He won modest pledges of support for the rebels from Western and Arab ministers in Rome last week.
He has also said he is ready for talks with representatives of Assad's government to help find a political solution to a conflict which erupted nearly two years ago and has descended into a civil war in which around 70,000 people have been killed.
Assad, in an interview with British newspaper The Sunday Times, said his government was prepared to talk to fighters who lay down their weapons but insisted he would not leave the country or step aside under foreign pressure.
"We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms," he said according to a transcript released by state media. However there would be no talks with "terrorists who are determined to carry weapons," he added.
"We have to be clear about this. We have opposition that are political entities and we have armed terrorists. We can engage in dialogue with the opposition but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists. We fight terrorists."
Alkhatib's opposition coalition says that any talks must focus on Assad's departure -- the objective of the 23-month uprising -- while rebel leaders have set even tougher conditions, insisting he depart before they start talks.
But Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, said he was not going anywhere. "No patriotic person will think about living outside his country. I am like any other patriotic Syrian," he told the newspaper.
In response to calls from some Western and Arab governments for him to go, Assad replied: "Only (the) Syrian people can tell the president: stay or leave, come or go."
Opposition activists say the capture of Khan al-Asal base, 7 km (5 miles) southwest of Aleppo, comes as a boost to a joint opposition military command set up last year with Western and Arab backing to try to counter the growing military prowess of the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
"It is a locally made victory achieved by a myriad of brigades from the rural west of Aleppo. It shows that you don't have to have a foreign name to achieve victory," activist Abu Mujahed told Reuters from the area.
He said the brigades who took the site were mostly Islamist but did not subscribe to al Qaeda ideology. He added that an army academy on the western edge of the city is the last major barrier between the rebels and Assad's forces inside Aleppo.
Video footage showed Colonel Abdelbasset Tawil of the joint command of the Free Syrian army reading a statement declaring the seizure of the site among a group of commander of various brigades. "These honorable forces will continue to fight until the downfall of the Assad gang," Tawil said.
The walled complex at Khan al-Asal was turned into an army barrack from where artillery and rocket launchers gave cover for Assad's forces holding around 40 percent of Aleppo, the opposition sources said.
Video footage released by the rebel Farouq Brigade showed a rebel-driven tank firing at the base before its capture. Other videos showed fighters touring the site after it fell, stamping on a large picture of Assad and shouting: "We will get to you."
Further east, Iraqi military sources said Iraq shut a border crossing with Syria on Sunday after rebels seized the Syrian side of the frontier post close to the Syrian town of Yaarabiya.
"Iraqi authorities were ordered to shut off Rabia border crossing until further notice because of the Syrian government's lack of control over the other side of the post," police said.
Military sources said blast walls now blocked off the border crossing and employees had been evacuated, though both sides of the crossing were calm and there was no sign of Syrian troops or the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces across the border.
In Amman, Jordan's national carrier Royal Jordanian said it had stopped flying over Syrian air space for security reasons. The airline stopped its regular flights to Damascus last year along with some other carriers.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Stephen Powell)
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