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Saudis mum on aid center in Turkey for Syrian rebels

The Syrian foreign minister while visiting Iran Sunday said the Syrian rebels are part of an Israeli plot, but in northern Syria, people support the opposition to the current regime. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Updated at 5:30p.m. ET: Saudi Arabia said Syrians should be enabled to protect themselves against government attacks but declined direct comment on a report that it had helped set up a secret liaison center in Turkey to aid a rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad on Sunday claimed victory in a hard-fought battle for Syria's capital, Damascus, and pounded rebels who control of parts of its largest city, Aleppo.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Sunday that the attacks on Aleppo are putting the nail in the coffin of Assad's government.

Gulf sources told Reuters on Friday that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar had established a center in Adana, southeastern Turkey, to help the rebel Free Syrian Army with communications and weaponry as it battles in major cities against forces loyal to Assad.

Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

A Free Syrian Army member walks past the body of an alleged member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's shabiha militia at Aleppo's disctrict of al-Sukkari.

"The very well-known position of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is to extend to the Syrian people financial and humanitarian assistance, as well as calling upon the international community to enable them to protect themselves at the very least if the international community is not able to do so," a foreign ministry spokesman said by text message on Saturday, answering a Reuters query about the base.

Related: 'Heavy skirmishing' reported in Syria's biggest city

"The Syrian regime is importing and using all kinds of weapons to fight and oppress its own people in a fierce war as if it's launched toward a foreign enemy -- not against its disarmed population", the spokesman added.

The Gulf sources had also said the Adana center, which is near the Syrian border and a U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik, was set up at the suggestion of Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah during a trip to Turkey.

Rebel fighters and government forces are still fighting in Syria's commercial hub of Aleppo. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

However, the foreign ministry spokesman said Prince Abdulaziz, who was promoted to deputy foreign minister last year, and is a son of King Abdullah, had not visited Turkey.

Assad forces declare capital victory
Assad's forces have struggled as never before to maintain their grip on the country over the past two weeks after a major rebel advance into the two largest cities and an explosion that killed four top security officials.

Government forces have succeeded in reimposing their grip the capital after a punishing battle, but rebels are still in control of sections of Aleppo, clashing with reinforced army troops for several days.

"Today I tell you, Syria is stronger... In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed," Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said on a visit to Iran, Assad's main ally in a region where other neighbors have forsaken him.

"So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail."

Rebel fighters, patrolling opposition districts in flat-bed trucks flying green-white-and-black "independence" flags, said they were holding off Assad's forces in the south-western Aleppo district of Salaheddine, where clashes have gone on for days.

Opposition activists also reported fighting in other rebel-held districts of Aleppo, in what could herald the start of a decisive phase in the battle for Syria's commercial hub, after the army sent tank columns and troop reinforcements last week.

Helicopter gunships hovered over the city shortly after dawn and the thud of artillery boomed across neighborhoods. Syrian state television said soldiers was repelling "terrorists" in Salaheddine and had captured several of their leaders.

Rebels in Aleppo shoot at Syrian government helicopters during an intense battle on Saturday.

Panetta heading to Middle East
Panetta, speaking at the start of a weeklong trip to the Middle East and North Africa, did not offer any new steps the United States might take even as he renewed calls for a united international effort "to bring the Assad regime down."

"If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's own coffin," Panetta said, speaking to reporters shortly before landing in Tunis.

"What Assad has been doing to his own people and what he continues to do to his own people makes clear that his regime is coming to an end. It's lost all legitimacy," he said, adding, "It's no longer a question of whether he's coming to an end, it's when."

Panetta mentioned the need to "provide assistance to the opposition," but did not appear to signal any new support.

The United States has said it is stepping up assistance to Syria's fractured opposition, although it remains limited to non-lethal supplies such as communications gear and medical equipment.

Reuters has learned that the White House has crafted a presidential directive, called a "finding," that would authorize greater covert assistance for the rebels, but stop short of arming them.

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