Continued from page 1

Fighting between rebels and government troops raged on in several parts of the country on Wednesday. Regime warplanes struck rebel-held areas in the northern Idlib province and Damascus suburbs.

In northern Syria, a rebel group claimed it brought down a Syrian MiG-23 fighter plane near the rebel-held town of Daret Azzeh, according to a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. The report quoted unnamed rebels in the area and said the jet was shot down Wednesday, most likely by a missile.

There was no immediate independent confirmation.

Opposition fighters claim they have shot down helicopters and warplanes in the past, although the rebels repeatedly complain their arsenal is no match for the regime’s fighter jets and attack helicopters.

In recent weeks rebels have captured several air bases with anti-aircraft weapons, but it is not known if they have the ability to operate them.

Since the summer, the Syrian military has significantly increased its use of air power in efforts to roll back the rebels’ territorial gains, particularly in the northeast, along the border with Turkey.

Syria’s conflict started 20 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

Assad blames the revolt on a conspiracy to destroy Syria, saying the uprising is being driven by foreign “terrorists” — a term the authorities use for the rebels — and not Syrians seeking change.

Analysts say most of those fighting Assad’s regime are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected. But increasingly, fighters adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines. The rebels try to play down the Islamists’ influence for fear of alienating Western support.

___

Surk reported from Beirut. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.