- Associated Press - Monday, October 1, 2012

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian foreign minister accused the U.S. and its allies of stoking “terrorism” in his country, delivering an uncompromising message before the United Nations on Monday as fighting spread in a centerpiece of Syria’s cultural heritage, the historic Old City of Aleppo.

Elsewhere in the country, a government air raid on a northern town killed at least 21 people, activists said.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting, Walid al-Moallem denounced countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey for supporting the opposition, and also lashed out at calls in Washington and in Arab and European capitals for President Bashar Assad to step down.

“This terrorism which is externally supported is accompanied by unprecedented media provocation based on igniting religious extremism sponsored by well-known states in the region,” he said, an apparent allusion to an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. that has sparked protests throughout the Muslim world.

He invited the opposition to “work together to stop the shedding of Syrian blood” and said that a Syrian-led dialogue could produce a “more pluralistic and democratic” country.

Al-Moallem’s call, similar to other overtures made by Assad’s regime, is unlikely to be heeded by the opposition. Most opposition factions have repeatedly dismissed the government’s purported peace initiatives as propaganda, meant to buy time. They say will accept nothing less that Assad stepping down as a precondition for talks.

But on many other points, the Syrian opposition’s political factions as well as rebel groups fighting on the ground are deeply divided. The Damascus representative of the new international peace envoy to Syria said Monday that the large number of rival rebel groups is one of the main obstacles to a U.N. mission’s efforts to broker an end to Syria’s 18-month crisis.

With every diplomatic effort so far failing to halt the violence, Syria’s civil war has descended into a deadly daily grind as the regime and the rebels trying to overthrow Assad both try to gain the upper hand.

Some of the heaviest fighting Monday took place in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, where rebels recently launched a new offensive.

Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said 12 people were killed when troops shelled a mosque in the city. A video posted online showed wounded worshippers being rushed away. Another video showed the Osman bin Madoun Mosque later in the day with its green carpets stained with blood.

The Observatory said 40 people were either killed or wounded in Aleppo on Monday, while the LCC put the death toll nationwide at as many as 95 by Monday afternoon.

Northwest of Aleppo, government warplanes bombed the town of Salqin, killing at least 21 people including five children, activists said. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll at 30.

Salqin is located some six kilometers (four miles) from the border with Turkey in Idlib province, which has seen intense clashes between government troops and rebels in recent months.

Footage posted online by activists showed several mutilated bodies in the back of a pickup truck as a man shouts that his son was killed. A second video showed three dead children on the floor of what appeared to be a hospital.

The government severely restricts access to the country, and the authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.

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