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Besieged Syrians in 'horrific' spot as kidnappings continue in Lebanon

By the CNN Wire Staff
August 17, 2012 -- Updated 0115 GMT (0915 HKT)
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 238 deaths reported Thursday, including 60 unidentified bodies, opposition says
  • U.N. observer mission will end this weekend, France's U.N. ambassador says
  • Another kidnapping in Lebanon; the Meqdad group denies responsibility
  • The violence in Lebanon appeared to have quieted Thursday

(CNN) -- The Syrian government pounded the country's largest city Thursday, using aerial forces to shell neighborhoods and intensifying the siege that has become a focal point of the country's civil war.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Lebanon, another person was kidnapped in an incident believed to be linked to the violence in Syria.

And amid growing concerns about the scores of deaths daily in Syria, the U.N. observer mission in the country is coming to an end. It will expire on the weekend and will not be extended, France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said Thursday.

At least 238 new deaths were reported across Syria on Thursday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria. The deaths include 75 in Aleppo.

They also include 60 unidentified bodies found in Qatana, a Damascas suburb, the LCC said. The bodies, found in a landfill, "seem to have been executed in a massacre by the regime's army," the group said.

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At least eight people were killed and more than 50 wounded when shells struck near an Aleppo bakery where people had lined up to buy bread, said Ahmad al-Zaeem, a commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army. At least 150 people have been wounded in the latest violence in Aleppo, he said.

A day earlier, Sayrian fighter jets launched rockets that hit a hospital in an opposition-controlled part of the metropolis. CNN witnessed the attack.

CNN Inside Syria: Nobody imagined it would turn into this

CNN's Ben Wedeman, reporting from western Syria, said Aleppo residents are left with no good options. If they stay in their homes, "there's a very good chance that they could be killed in an air raid, in this random shelling that goes on around the clock." If they leave, they're destitute and dependent on refugee agencies and relief groups. "So it's really a horrific situation, regardless of where you go."

The Syrian government, on state-run media, said Thursday that its forces had killed "terrorists" in Aleppo.

Syria also said its forces "dismantled an explosive device planted by an armed group near a mosque at the Meridian area in Aleppo."

Human Rights Watch condemned the regime Thursday after a fighter jet bombed a residential neighborhood in Azaz, in northern Aleppo province.

The New York-based rights group said an investigation showed that at least two bombs destroyed an entire block of houses in the city near the Turkish border.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appointed a new governor of Aleppo province, Mohammed Wahid Aqaad, on Thursday, State TV said.

He also appointed Adnan Abdo al-Sukhni as minister of industry; Nijim hamad Al-Ahmad as minister of justice; and Saa'd al-Salam al Nayef as minister of health, state-run news agency SANA reported.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon estimated that more than 150,000 people have fled the nearly 18 months of fighting in Syria that has left 18,000 dead. Opposition groups report a death toll as high as 22,000.

CNN cannot independently confirm reports of casualties and violence by rebel and government forces. The Syrian government has severely restricted the access of international journalists.

Syria violence fuels kidnapping threats in Lebanon

"The Syrian people have suffered too much, too long. We cannot go on this way," Ban said Wednesday.

"The international community must feel the sense of collective responsibility on this situation. How long do we have to endure this kind of a tragedy? This is not justice and this is not acceptable."

Ban is searching for a successor to replace Kofi Annan, who resigned this month as the U.N. and Arab League joint special envoy for Syria amid what he called a lack of unity among members of the U.N. Security Council.

Russia and China, trade partners with Syria, have vetoed three Western-backed Security Council resolutions that called for al-Assad to end the violence and step down.

Even without a resolution, al-Assad's government has been under enormous international pressure following a brutal crackdown on a popular uprising that devolved into an armed conflict. The United States, the European Union and a number of Arab nations have slapped sanctions on its top officials, its Central Bank and oil companies.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the group that attempts to offer a collective voice of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, suspended Syria's membership Wednesday. Iran, with its strong ties to Damascus, and Algeria were the sole opponents in the 57-nation body, which has a permanent delegation to the United Nations.

The OIC's move sends a message to al-Assad that its members will not accept the regime killing its people, Ekemeleddin Ihsanoglu, the organization's secretary-general, told CNN.

Ihsanoglu called on the Security Council to approve tougher resolutions against the Syrian regime.

The regime said Thursday its forces freed three journalists -- Yara Salah, Abdallah Tabra and Houssam Imad -- being held in El Tal, north of Damascus, according to Syrian State TV. The three, who work for the pro-regime station Al Ikhbariya, were taken by rebels while covering the fighting in a suburb north of Damascus, State TV said.

The claim by the government came as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, said initial reports indicated "a number of people were killed and injured" in El Tal following heavy shelling during the raid by government forces.

The countering claims by Syrian forces and rebels followed news that a U.N. panel found that both sides have committed war crimes in the conflict. The U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry, though, singled out the scale of the government's attacks as crimes against humanity.

The fighting has fueled protests and violence in neighboring Lebanon.

Mass protests and kidnappings reported in Lebanon between Syrians loyal to the Sunni-dominated rebels and those aligned with al-Assad, an Alawite Muslim with strong Shiite support, have raised concern that Syria's conflict could undo the political balance that has managed to prevail since the end of Lebanon's 15-year civil war in 1990.

A Syrian citizen, Houssam Khashroum was kidnapped Thursday in front of a hospital in the eastern Lebanese town of Zahle, a Lebanese security official said.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, called on their citizens to leave Lebanon late Wednesday, citing deteriorating security.

The latest unrest in Lebanon was triggered by the kidnapping in Damascus of a Lebanese man, Hassan Salim Meqdad, by Syrian rebels who accused him of being a Hezbollah member. The rebel Free Syrian Army distributed a "confession" by Meqdad in which he said he was one of 1,500 Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria.

In response, Meqdad's brother, Hatem Meqdad, told Lebanon's state news agency that his family kidnapped 26 Syrians living in Lebanon and warned that citizens of the Persian Gulf monarchies and Turkey would be next. Two of the captives were displayed for cameras, appearing beneath a black tribal banner.

Groups of young people protesting Meqdad's abduction burned tires and blocked the road to Beirut's international airport late Wednesday as soldiers in riot gear and armed with tear gas stood by.

On Thursday, Maher Meqdad, a family spokesman, told a televised news conference that his group had stopped all military operations.

He added that the group was not involved in Thursday's kidnapping.

The violence in Syria has been spilling over into Lebanon since May, when a group of Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria. A series of gun battles, riots and angry protests that month left at least 11 people dead.

For Syria's neighbors, impact is growing with each refugee

CNN's Ben Wedeman in western Syria; Nick Paton Walsh and Arwa Damon in Beirut; and Josh Levs, Amir Ahmed, Joe Sterling, Chelsea J. Carter and Salma Abdelaziz in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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