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Syrian army 'reclaims' violence-hit Rastan

Syrian forces have taken control of most of the central town of Rastan after five days of intense fighting with army defectors who sided with protesters, a London-based activist says.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Saturday that the army had deployed in around 80 per cent of the town after a force of 250 tanks were sent to the Rastan region a day earlier.

He also said that communication with Rastan, which lies 180km north of the capital Damascus and is home to 40,000 people, was difficult but a resident who escaped early on Saturday reported heavy gunfire through the night.

Rastan has seen the first prolonged armed confrontation between anti-government troops and soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling a six-month uprising calling for his overthrow.

SANA state news agency had reported that seven government soldiers were killed and 32 wounded over the recent days in clashes in the town, and that the army had "inflicted big losses on the armed terrorist groups".

There was no independent confirmation of the report as Syrian authorities have banned foreign reporters working in the country.

Elsewhere in Syria, funeral processions were held for those killed in protests across the country a day earlier. The Local Co-ordinating Committees, a network of activists, said that at least 23 protesters were killed after thousands took to Syrian streets after Friday prayers.

The United Nations say that at least 2,700 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown since the uprising started in March. The goverment, however, blames the violence on armed gangs backed by foreign forces, and says 700 policemen and soldiers have been killed.

Opposition meet

In other developments, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is trying to unite opponents to Assad's rule, was holding negotiations behind closed doors with rivals on Saturday in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

Several opposition movements are trying to reach an alliance, Khaled Khoja, a member of the SNC, told the AFP news agency.

"We have been holding discussions for several days with Burhan Ghalioun. There are also Kurds and representatives of tribes," he said.

Ghalioun, an academic based in France, was recently designated the leader of a rival opposition grouping, the National Transitional Council, which has both Islamist and secular supporters.

"When the SNC meets, there will be a new assembly which will be expanded to these new movements," Khoja said, adding that the meeting scheduled to be held on Saturday would now not take place before Sunday at the earliest because of the negotiations.

The SNC, the largest and most representative Syrian opposition grouping, was founded in Istanbul at the end of August and boasts 140 members, half of them living in Syria.

The Istanbul meeting of members currently outside Syria is due to elect the president of the SNC and heads of various committees.

Basma Qoudmani, an SNC spokeswoman, said the grouping also hoped to secure the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, an outfit that has been banned in Syria since the rise of the ruling Baath Party to power in 1963, and of a pro-democracy movement formed in Damascus in 2005.

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