- Associated Press - Thursday, August 9, 2012

BEIRUT — Iran, the strongest ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, hosted a gathering of countries for talks on how to end the civil war in Syria, as clashes between government troops and rebels raged Thursday in opposition bastions of besieged Aleppo.

Iran billed the conference as an attempt to start an alternative political process, separate from Western-led initiatives, to encourage all sides to negotiate.

Speaking at the opening of the conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said his country rejects any foreign and military intervention in Syria.

He said about 30 countries attended the meeting, including China and Russia, which have blocked tough U.N. sanctions on Syria, as well as Algeria, Iraq, Pakistan and Venezuela.

Mr. Salehi also accused rebels of using civilians as “human shields.”

Syrian rebels last week seized 48 Iranian men on a bus in a Damascus suburb. Rebels claimed the Iranians are military personnel, including some members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, who were on a “reconnaissance mission” to help Mr. Assad’s crackdown.

Iran, however, says the 48 were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus. The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels have also seized 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who have been held in northern Syria since May.

Mr. Assad, meanwhile, appointed a new prime minister to replace Riad Hijab, who defected to neighboring Jordan this week. State-run news agency SANA said he appointed Health Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi, a Sunni member of the ruling Baath party from the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the 17-month-old uprising.

Mr. Hijab’s defection was a humiliating blow to the regime. Like nearly all prominent defectors so far, he is a member of Syria’s majority Sunnis - the Muslim sect that forms the bedrock of the uprising. Mr. Assad’s inner circle is dominated by members of the president’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The regime has been trying to drive rebels out of Aleppo for two weeks, but the blistering attacks on rebel positions from the ground and the air appear to be only slowly chipping away at the opposition’s grip on its strongholds.

The state news agency claimed Wednesday that Mr. Assad’s force had regained control of the Salaheddine neighborhood, the main rebel area in Aleppo, but activists said rebels were still putting up a fight there on Thursday.

“It’s difficult to know exactly what’s going on because of the scale of the bombing, but the rebels are still fighting,” Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said.

In a computer video interview, he said troops were using warplanes and tanks to shell the towns of Hreitan and Tel Rifat, some 25 miles north of Aleppo. Most of the rebels have converged on Aleppo from those towns.

“They are trying to cut the main lines from Tel Rifat to Aleppo,” he said.

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