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Report: 30 dead in Syrian air strike on rebel-held town; strife spills into Lebanon

An air strike by Syrian government forces killed 30 people in the rebel-held town of Azaz on Wednesday, a local doctor said, and a mass kidnapping linked to Syria in neighboring Lebanon raised the prospect of sectarian violence spreading.


That citizens of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key supporters of the Sunni Muslim insurgency, were among those seized by Lebanese Shi'ites prompted Gulf states to urge citizens to leave Lebanon. It also underscored how the Syrian conflict is dividing the region along sectarian lines as world powers remain deadlocked.

PhotoBlog: Air strike in Azaz kills 30

Also, in Geneva, a highly anticipated report by an independent commission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, found evidence of war crimes perpetrated in Syria

Doctor Mohammad Lakhini said at a hospital in Azaz, in the north near the Turkish border, that scores of people there were wounded in the raid by President Bashar al-Assad's air force. It reduced several houses to rubble and dozens of men clawed through the concrete and metal debris looking for survivors.


In video posted by activists earlier on Wednesday, residents in Azaz - close to the major urban battleground of Aleppo - screamed and shouted "God is greatest" as they carried bloodied bodies from collapsed concrete buildings.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens had been killed. One activist in the town said at least 30 bodies had been found and rescuers were searching for more.

The video footage, which could not be immediately verified, showed crowds of residents wrestling with steel bars and pulling away a giant slab of concrete to reveal the dust-covered arm of a child. "This is a real catastrophe," said an activist who gave his name only as Anwar. "An entire street was destroyed."

Syrian state TV: Bomb rattles UN monitors' hotel

Seven Lebanese hostages being held in Azaz were also wounded, with four others still missing, a rebel commander said.


"The building they were in was hit," rebel commander Ahmed Ghazali told the Lebanese news channel Al Jadeed.

"We were able to remove seven from the wreckage. They are wounded, and some of the injuries are serious."

Assad's forces have increasingly used helicopter gunships and warplanes against the lightly-armed insurgents - elements in fresh accusations of war crimes leveled by United Nations human rights investigators on Wednesday.

Sectarian overtones
The Syrian civil war has taken on overtly sectarian overtones, with most rebels belonging to the Sunni Muslim majority, fighting against government forces rooted in Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Regional powers are being drawn into the fight, with Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebels and Shi'ite Iran backing Assad's government. Fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites lay behind long civil wars in Syria's neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, and the West fears the violence could spread.

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In Lebanon, gangs backing the regime in Damascus smashed storefronts belonging to Syrian merchants on Wednesday and a powerful clan claimed it was holding more than 20 Syrians captives as the civil war across the border stirred tensions in the fragile Arab nation.

Gunmen belonging to the Shi'ite clan abducted more the men, including at least one Turk, one Saudi and several Syrian anti-Assad fighters, in retaliation for the capture of one of their kinsmen by rebels in Damascus. 

The incident, in an area of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah Shi'ite militants long allied to Assad and supported by Iran, raised the prospect of Syria's sectarian violence spilling over to its neighbor. Mass kidnapping was a perennial tactic in Lebanon's own sectarian civil war from 1975-1990.

Members of the Meqdad clan said they had carried out the kidnappings in retaliation for the capture of kinsman Hassan al-Meqdad by anti-Assad rebels in Damascus two days earlier.

They threatened to carry out more abductions of Qataris, Turks and Saudis. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates told their citizens to leave Lebanon - potentially dealing a blow to Beirut's reviving tourist business.

Syria's civil war has polarized Lebanon, with Shi'ites rallying behind Assad and Sunnis backing his enemies.

As the violence intensified, U.N. human rights investigators accused forces loyal to Assad of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Investigators determined that May killings in the town of Houla, in which more than 100 people died, including nearly half of them children, as well as numerous other murders, unlawful killings, acts of torture, rape and other sexual violence and indiscriminate attacks on civilians were carried out "pursuant to state policy pointing to the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government." 

The UN panel also concluded that anti-government armed groups committed war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, but said that "these violations and abuses were not of the same gravity, frequency and scale" as those carried out by government forces and the shabiha militia. 

Opposition sources say 18,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad erupted in March last year. The bloodshed has divided regional and world powers, making peace efforts fruitless and paralyzing the U.N. Security Council. 

Most Western and Arab governments have called on Assad to go, saying his government's violent response to initially peaceful protests give him no place in a future Syria.

Russia has opposed tougher U.N. sanctions against Damascus, a long-time strategic ally, but denies it is actively helping Assad remain in power. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Western governments of reneging on a deal among world powers made on June 30 to push for a transitional government in Syria.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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