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UN extends Syria observer mission as fighting continues

The Syrian intelligence chief has died from wounds suffered in a bomb attack Wednesday in Damascus. Funerals were held for three other members of president Assad's inner circle who were killed in the blast. Lindsey Hilsum, Channel Four Europe reports.

The U.N. Security Council voted Friday to maintain its observer mission in Syria for a "final" 30 days, the BBC reported.

The vote came after hours of negotiations among the members, the report said. Russia initially threatened to veto the resolution.

The Security Council's decision comes as fighting is engulfing areas of Damascus. Thousands of Syrian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries, the BBC reported.

Following the vote, Britain's UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said: "We have said clearly that it is a final extension unless there is a change in the dynamic on the ground, and in particular that there should be a cessation of use of heavy weapons and that there should be a sufficient reduction in the violence to enable UNSMIS [the observer mission] to carry out its mandate."

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against Western powers taking action against Syria beyond the Security Council's authority.

According to the BBC, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "In the opinion of the Russian president, any attempts to act outside the UN Security Council will be ineffective and only undermine the authority of this international organization."

Syrian troops fought on the corpse-strewn streets of the capital and at far-flung border posts on Friday to reverse gains by rebels, who have advanced relentlessly in the 48 hours since several members of President Bashar Assad's closest circle were assassinated.

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Assad's intelligence chief on Friday became the fourth member of that circle to die of wounds sustained in Wednesday's bomb attack, which has transformed the 16-month conflict.

Since then, rebels have pushed deep into the heart of the capital and seized control of other towns. On Thursday, they captured three border crossings with Iraq and Turkey, the first time they have held sway over Syria's frontiers.

Assad has not spoken in public since Wednesday.

The next few days may be critical in determining whether Assad's government can recover from the bombing, which wiped out much of his command structure and destroyed his clan's aura of invulnerability.

Regional and world powers are now bracing for the last phase of the conflict, hoping to lever Assad out of power without unleashing a sectarian war that could spill across borders in one of the most volatile parts of the world.

A Western diplomat said it was understood that the Syrian leader had phoned the head of a U.N. observer mission after Wednesday's blast, saying he would accept an international peace plan if the West forced the opposition to halt attacks. The mission head, General Robert Mood, was not available to comment.

Diplomacy has failed to keep pace with events. A day after Moscow and Beijing vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have allowed sanctions, the Security Council approved a 30-day extension of Mood's small, unarmed mission, the only outside military presence on the ground.

In at least one apparent success for Assad's forces, state television said troops had cleared the central Damascus district of Midan of "mercenaries and terrorists." It aired footage of dead men in T-shirts, some covered in blood, others burned.

Opposition activists and rebel sources confirmed Friday that they had withdrawn from that district after coming under heavy bombardment, but said they were advancing elsewhere.

"It is a tactical withdrawal. We are still in Damascus," Abu Omar, a rebel commander, said by telephone.

One resident of a Palestinian refugee camp in the south of the city said the area nearby had a stench of corpses.

He said: "Tens of cars are burned, I saw at least eight bodies in the streets and people are trying to cover them with blankets."

Assad's forces also tried to recapture the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Syria and shelled the Abu Kamal crossing with Iraq on the Euphrates River highway, among the most important trade routes in the Middle East. The rebels said they still held the crossings, which they captured on Thursday.

A Reuters photographer at the scene said Iraqi forces had sealed off their side of the checkpoint with concrete walls.

The Syrian side had been burned and looted and a senior Iraqi interior ministry official said it appeared to be in rebel hands. Iraqi officers said it was quiet after clashes overnight.

The surge in violence has trapped millions of Syrians, turned sections of the capital into ghost towns and sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighboring Lebanon. The U.N. refugee agency said it had heard banks had run out of cash.

"We have figures that there could be anywhere from 9,000 to 30,000 that have fled across the border into Lebanon just in the last 48 hours," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the BBC.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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