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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stood by the regime.

“Now the city of Aleppo is occupied by the armed opposition; another tragedy is imminent there,” he said. “How can it be hoped that in such a situation the government will simply give in, say ‘Okay, I wasn’t right, overthrow me, change the regime — it’s simply unrealistic.”

Russia has been a key source of support for Syria, although Moscow officials in recent months have said they are simply taking a more even-handed approach while the West offers blind support to the rebels.

It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials.

The regime, however, launched a swift counteroffensive and quashed the assault on the capital with a combination of heavy weapons and house-to-house searches. Scores of people were killed. Opposition activists said they expected similar tactics in the coming days to keep Aleppo from falling into rebel hands.

The rebels are outgunned by the Syrian forces, making it difficult for them to hold any territory for long. But the rebels’ run on Damascus and Aleppo suggests they could be gaining in power and organization.

With a population of about 3 million, Aleppo is Syria’s commercial hub, a key pillar of support for Assad’s regime.

If the rebels in Aleppo really try to make a stand against the regime, however, they risk being annihilated by superior firepower and may yet decide to withdraw to preserve their forces as what happened in Damascus last week.

Saudi Arabia and other nations have spoken positively of arming the rebels, though no country is known to be doing so.

Saudi King Abdullah announced a national campaign to collect money for “our brothers in Syria” on July 22, and on Saturday the country’s press agency said Saudi donations had reached more than $72 million.

Late Friday, Syria’s state-run TV said the army freed two Italian electrical engineers, along with two drivers and a Russian expert, who were captured eight days ago by militants.

The Italians were identified as Domenico Tedeschi, 36, and Oriano Cantani, 64. The report said they worked at the Deir Ali power plant, some 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Damascus.

During a news conference in Damascus, Tedeschi told reporters they were kidnapped by five or six masked men, who intercepted their car as they drove to the airport.

“After a checkpoint, we were stopped by those people whose faces were covered by black masks,” he said, adding: “We were very, very afraid, because we don’t know anything.”

He said the men were robbed and then kept at a small villa. “We think that a Syrian family was forced to keep us,” he said, noting that they heard the voices of women and children.

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