Fresh fighting erupts in Syria
Syrian government forces backed by helicopters clashed today with rebels in several towns in the coastal province of Latakia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Rebels said at least eight of the fighters were killed."The clashes started seven hours ago. These are the heaviest clashes so far in the area since the beginning of the revolution (in March 2011)," Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the British-based Observatory, said.
He said at least five tanks and armoured personnel carriers were destroyed. Rebels have taken over police stations in the city of Haffeh in the countryside of Latakia, he added. He said "a lot of ambulances" were seen arriving in the city of Latakia carrying government forces casualties.
The latest violence comes as Syria expelled 17 foreign diplomats in response to a mass expulsion of Syrian envoys by Western capitals last week. The government labelled the diplomats, most of them American or European, as "persona non grata" (unwelcome).
But the foreign ministry said the government was still open to re-establishing ties with the diplomats, almost all of whom had already been recalled by their governments.
"The Syrian Arab Republic still believes in the importance of dialogue based on principles of equality and mutual respect," a ministry statement said.
"We hope the countries that initiated these steps will adopt those principles, which would allow relations to return to normal again."
Syrian security forces are trying to crush a revolt against president Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Among those listed were diplomats from former ally Turkey, which has become an outspoken critic of Dr Assad's crackdown and has given haven to army defectors. The foreign ministry said the ambassador and all the staff at Turkey's embassy in Damascus were unwelcome.
The United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria and Switzerland coordinated a move to expel Syrian diplomats in response to a massacre of 108 people in the city of Houla.
Nearly half those killed were children.
Deputy foreign minister Faisal Maqdad told the Syrian news channel al-Ikhbariya that the government's decision aimed to encourage those countries to "correct" their position.
Later the country agreed to allow the United Nations and international agencies to expand humanitarian operations in the country, where at least 1 million people need assistance after 14 months of bloody conflict, a senior UN aid official said today.
"This agreement was secured in Damascus with the government there, in writing," John Ging, who chaired the closed-door Syrian Humanitarian Forum, told reporters in Geneva.
"Freedom of movement, unimpeded access for humanitarian action within Syria, is what it's all about now. The good faith of the (Syrian) government will be tested on this issue today, tomorrow and every day," he said.