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France sends aid, cash to rebel-held Syrian cities, source says

Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

PARIS -- France has started providing direct aid and money to five rebel-held Syrian cities as it intensifies efforts to weaken President Bashar Assad, in the first such move by a Western power, a diplomatic source said Wednesday.

The French aid comes as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized the Security Council on Wednesday for failing to take action to protect Syrians facing violence that has led to thousands of deaths.

Amid mounting calls for the international community to do more to prevent bloodshed, France — Syria's former colonial ruler — has pushed to create "liberated zones" in Syria.

France has increased its contacts with armed opposition groups and started giving aid last Friday to local citizens' councils in five cities outside the government's control, the diplomatic source told The Associated Press. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius promised last week that such aid was in the pipeline.

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius speaks during a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria on August 30.

The aid is notably helping restore water supplies, bakeries and schools affected by Syria's civil war, with the aim of helping rebel-held areas run themselves, the diplomatic official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the French actions amid Syria's violence.

France's allies are interested in providing similar aid, the official said. He would not name the cities or explain how the aid is being provided, citing security reasons. He said the cities house a total of 700,000 residents and have been outside control of President Bashar Assad's regime for between one and five months.

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"In zones where the regime has lost control, such as Tal Rifaat (25 miles north of Aleppo), which has been free five months, local revolutionary councils have been set up to help the population and put in place an administration for these towns so as to avoid chaos like in Iraq when the regime pulls back," a diplomatic source told Reuters.

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People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

French officials have acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebel forces, but say they won't provide weapons without international agreement. France played a leading role in the international campaign against Libya's dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year.

France last week promised an extra 5 million euros ($6.25 million) to help Syrians.

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Civilians in rebel-held parts of Syria have suffered frequent deadly airstrikes from Assad's forces and questions have been raised on how Paris proposes to protect civilians and deter them from fleeing to neighboring countries.

The source admitted some areas still faced sporadic bombardments from Syrian forces, but there was little prospect of them falling back into government hands. He said people in these areas had asked for anti-aircraft weapons.

The diplomatic push for Syria continues as the death toll in the country rises, forcing more than 230,000 Syrians to escape in the past 17 months. Meanwhile, China and the US remain divided over how to end the conflict. NBC's Ayman Moyheldin reports.

No-fly zones patrolled by foreign aircraft could protect rebel-held areas, but there is little chance of securing a U.N. Security Council mandate for such action, given opposition from veto-wielding members Russia and China.

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Paris has increased its dialogue with opposition fighters over the past few weeks, although at this stage no French military advisers are helping them, the source said, adding that France was working to develop links between Syria's political opposition, defectors and rebel fighters.

Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.

At the U.N. General Assembly, Ban demanded urgent action to protect Syrians now fleeing the country in record numbers. "We have seen the immense human cost of failing to protect," he said.

In January, the death toll from the Syrian conflict — which began in March 2011 as a peaceful protest against President Bashar Assad's regime — was approaching 6,000. Activists now put the death toll at between 23,000 and 26,000.

At a U.N. summit in 2005, world leaders agreed that governments have a collective responsibility to protect people from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The concept arose from the World War II Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia in the late 1970s and the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes a rare public appearance by giving an interview to a pro-government news channel in Syria. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

The Security Council's paralysis on Syria has its roots partly in how the responsibility to protect has been used.

Last year, the Security Council authorized measures to protect civilians from attacks by Gadhafi's forces in Libya. Russia and China then complained that NATO went beyond the council's mandate.

As fighting continues in Syria, observers blame government airstrikes for mounting casualties which activists now say top 20,000. ITV's John Ray reports.

Since the Syrian conflict erupted, Russia and China have strongly allied themselves with the Syrian government and have vetoed three Western-backed Security Council resolutions demanding that his forces end the violence and threatening sanctions if they didn't.

Ban told the General Assembly that "inaction cannot be an option for our community of nations."

The number of people fleeing the fighting in Syria continues to rise with more than 200,000 leaving for neighboring countries because of continuing violence. Government forces continue to shell Aleppo and other suburbs of Damascus. Jonathan Miller Channel 4 Europe reports.

Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig, the current Security Council president, told a news conference Wednesday that the Security Council has not been united on crucial questions to deal with the Syrian crisis.

"But that doesn't mean that we simply cease to discuss this crisis," he said.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.