At least 162 killed across Syria: NGO

Syrian free speech campaigner may face death:ICJ

The Syrian army launched an all-out assault on Aleppo's southwestern district of Salaheddin on Wednesday, and fierce fighting also broke out elsewhere in the northern city.

At least 37 people -- 17 civilians, 10 rebels and 10 soldiers -- were killed in the northern city, out of a total of at least 162 people killed across the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said it was difficult, because of the ferocity of the clashes, to immediately document the number of people killed in commercial capital Aleppo, and added that the real number would be higher.

The Britain-based watchdog said that of those killed across Syria, 94 were civilians, 41 were regime troops and 27 were rebels.

Among the dead were a woman and her two children killed when a shell hit their house in Aleppo's Al-Mashatiyah neighbourhood, said the watchdog.

The Qatarji, Tariq al-Bab and Shaar neighbourhoods also came under heavy shellfire, it said.

Elsewhere, seven people were killed in the central province of Homs, including a nurse who died when troops shelled the village of Zaafarana.

But the province that suffered the highest death toll was Deir Ezzor in the east, whose eponymous capital has suffered heavy shelling for almost two months, activists say.

The Observatory said 225 people were killed across the country on Tuesday, one of the highest tolls in the nearly 17-month revolt -- 129 civilians, 50 rebels and 46 soldiers.

It is impossible to verify these figures, and the United Nations has stopped maintaining an independent toll.

France sends military medics to help refugees

Meanwhile, an A310 airliner carrying a French military medical team destined to help refugees on the Joranian-Syrian border took off from Paris on Thursday.

With around 25 medical and 25 logistics staff on board, the plane was to stop off in Istres on France's Mediterranean coast to pick up 20 tonnes of medical aid before flying to Amman.

"We're expecting a difficult mission, complicated because it's unknown. At a technical level, we have the know-how," head doctor Gerard Dosseh told journalists in Paris.

"We will have to adapt ourselves to new situations every day," Dosseh said, adding that the team should be operational "at the end of the week."

The medical team can carry out up to 10 operations a day and hospitalise up to 20 patients.

President Francois Hollande's office announced the deployment on Monday.

Lebanese ex-minister arrested

Lebanese security forces on Thursday arrested Michel Samaha, a former information minister who is considered close to Syria's embattled regime, a senior official said.
"The security forces have arrested the (former) minister at his residence" at Khenshara in Mount Lebanon, said the source.

Samaha was information minister in the government of Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in a massive car bombing on the Beirut seafront on February 14, 2005.

A security official told AFP that the intelligence services arrested Samaha on orders of the attorney general.

Kuwait won't attend Iran meeting on Syria

Kuwait will not attend a conference that Iran is to host on Thursday on finding ways to end the conflict in Syria, a senior official said in a newspaper report.
"We have informed Iran officially that we are not attending," foreign ministry undersecretary Khaled al-Jarallah was quoted as saying in the privately owned Al-Seyassah newspaper.

A top aide to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Kuwait on Sunday and invited the Gulf state's top diplomat, Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al Sabah, to attend the conference in Tehran.

Several Kuwaiti lawmakers on Wednesday warned the government against taking part in the meeting "because Iran hands are stained with the blood of the Syrian people."

Al-Seyassah cited a Kuwaiti "informed source" as saying Iran has invited Bangladesh, China, Cuba, India and Russia to the conference, in addition to Arab countries Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Lebanon has already said it will not attend.

Boat with 160 Syrians arrives in Italy

A group of 160 Syrians travelling in a fishing boat arrived in the southern Italian port of Crotone on Wednesday, the Italian ANSA news agency said.

The group from the conflict-torn country was made up mainly of families and included 76 men, 36 women and 48 children.

Their boat was spotted about six kilometres offshore by a coastguard unit that escorted them to port.

The Syrians, all apparently in good health, were taken to a reception centre.

Some 2,000 km of Mediterranean Sea separate Syria and Italy.

Death threats on Twitter force reporter to flee

A French television station says that one of its reporters was forced to flee Syria following death threats he received on Twitter.

France 24 says Chady Chlela, a reporter with its Arab-language channel, who was reporting from restive Aleppo alongside rebel forces, had to return after spending only 48 hours in the country.

Chlela's photo was also circulated, alongside accusations he supported the regime of President Bashar Assad.

France 24 dismissed the allegation as unfounded.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday called them "an inexplicable attack on freedom of information in Syria that could have repercussion on all foreign journalists."

Russia to attend Iran talks on Syria

Russia said it would take part in planned talks in Tehran about the Syria crisis on Thursday, but indicated that preparations for the forum had been rushed.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry said Russia would be represented by its ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, "if the meeting in Tehran really takes place".

It said Russia had received an invitation but that plans to hold the meeting on Thursday meant "time for the necessary preparations is very short".

"Naturally, we intend to firmly pursue our line (calling for) an immediate end to bloodshed and the suffering of the civilian population, as well as for achieving a peaceful resolution in the interest of all Syrians through a broad political dialogue," the statement said.

Syrian free speech campaigner may face death

Syrian free speech campaigner Mazen Darwish is to be judged in secret by a military court and may be sentenced to death without any right to defence, appeal or review, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists said on Wednesday.

Syria's Air Force Intelligence, which arrested Darwish on Feb. 16, has decided he should be prosecuted by a Military Field Court, the ICJ said in a statement.

Military Field Courts are composed of military judges and have jurisdiction over crimes committed during wartime and military operations, said the ICJ, a body of 60 lawyers that seeks to promote the rule of law around the world.

"Accused persons before these courts have no right to defence and proceedings are conducted in secret. These courts do not apply existing laws or procedures and their decisions are final, not subject to any form of appeal or review. Under Legislative Decree 109, Mazen Darwish may face the death penalty," it said.

Darwish, a lawyer who is also president of the Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, was arrested along with 16 of his colleagues, some of whom have been prosecuted by the Military Court of Damascus for "possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them", the ICJ said. 

The ICJ called on the Syrian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Darwish. It said he had been "subject to forced disappearance" and the authorities had revealed nothing about his fate or whereabouts since his arrest.

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