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Syrian rebels unite to topple al-Assad

Syria’s rebel forces have decided to join forces to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces during the siege of the Shaar district police station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT - Syria's divided rebels have agreed to set up a joint leadership to oversee their battle to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, two insurgent sources said on Tuesday as fighting raged in cities across the country.

Rebels hope the decision, taken after increasing pressure from foreign supporters on them to unite, will help convince those backers that they are a credible and coordinated fighting force deserving to be supplied with more powerful weapons.

"The agreement has been reached, they only need to sign it now," one rebel source said. Foreign supporters "are telling us: 'Sort yourselves out and unite, we need a clear and credible side to provide it with quality weapons'."

He said Qatar and Turkey were the main drivers behind the agreement, which might be formally announced this month.

It is the latest attempt to bring together Assad's disparate armed opponents, most of whom have fought nominally under the banner of the rebel Free Syrian Army but who in practice have operated independently, often weakened by deep rivalries.

The new leadership will include FSA leaders Riad al-Asaad and Mustafa Sheikh - criticised by many rebels because they are based in Turkey - and recently defected General Mohammad Haj Ali, as well as heads of rebel provincial military councils inside Syria like Qassem Saadeddine, based in Homs province.

The Syrian National Council has set 4 November as the date for an opposition unity conference in Qatar, organisers said.

The 19-month-old revolt against Assad, which started as peaceful demonstrations, has mushroomed into a civil war with sectarian dimensions, pitting the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against a power structure dominated by the Alawite minority.

Activists say more than 30,000 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries and more than a million have been displaced inside Syria as entire city districts have been rendered ghost towns by heavy shelling.

The British Observatory for Human Rights said 80 people had been killed in Syria by dusk on Tuesday, after 160 died on Monday. Heavy clashes broke out in the city of Hama, and fighting continued in Aleppo and the northern province of Idlib.

A Reuters correspondent on Lebanon's north-eastern border with Syria saw a helicopter dropping explosives on the Syrian side of the frontier. Refugees unloading blankets from a pickup truck in an olive grove on the Lebanese side stopped to watch big black plumes of smoke rising into the sky.

Underlining increasing international concern about the conflict, Pope Benedict will send a group of top cardinals to visit Syria in coming days to express solidarity with its battered population, the Vatican news service said.

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