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Syrian rebels move command to Syria from Turkey

Hussein Malla / AP

Free Syrian Army fighters from the Al-Faruk brigade rest Saturday at the Syrian crossing border point of Tal Abyad, a Turkish-Syrian border crossing captured by the rebels earlier in the week, in eastern Syria.

The leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army said Saturday they moved their command center from Turkey to Syria with the aim of uniting rebels and speeding up the fall of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The FSA has been based in Turkey for more than a year as fighters have struggled to battle forces loyal to Assad. Although rebels now control large swathes of Syria, they face air and artillery attack from Assad's forces.

"The leadership of the FSA has entered the liberated areas (of Syria) after the success of the plan that the FSA has worked on with other battalions and units in order to safeguard the free areas," Colonel Riad al-Asaad said in a video statement.

Brig. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, who heads the FSA's military council, told The Associated Press that the group made the move last week. He would not say where the new headquarters is located or give other details.

A rebel source told Reuters that Asaad, the colonel, arrived in Syria two days ago. "The plan is that all the leadership of the FSA will be based in Syria soon, either in Idlib province or Aleppo province," the source told Reuters, adding that the move would be completed within two weeks.

The rebels made their announcement on the eve of a conference of several government-sanctioned Syrian opposition groups in the capital Damascus aiming to provide a political solution to the civil war -- a meeting that the FSA dismissed as a ploy by Assad to fool the international community.

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The FSA is the most prominent of several armed groups fighting to overthrow Assad. In the video, posted on the Web, the rebel colonel said his men would "fight side-by-side" with all groups and "start the plan to liberate Damascus soon, God willing." 

Despite calling for Assad to step down, the West is wary of arming disparate rebel groups. Western diplomats say they are looking for signs that the rebels have a clear chain of command within Syria.

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Turkey, which is housing more than 80,000 refugees from Syria, is facing internal pressure to distance itself from the conflict, and rebels are not always welcomed by residents.

Jet downed
Rebels shot down a fighter jet as it flew over the northern Syrian town of Atarib in Idlib province on Saturday, a witness said. 

The witness, an independent journalist who asked to remain anonymous, said rebel fighters were attacking a military base near the town when the jet flew over and rebels shot it down with anti-aircraft guns.

Rebels have previously brought down several government planes using outdated anti-aircraft machine guns welded to pickup trucks.
Activists say more than 27,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the 18-month-old revolt in Syria.

In Damascus, the army has been conducting raids of southern suburbs over the past few days after driving out most rebel fighters. Black smoke rose from the suburb of Hajar al-Aswad on Saturday and residents said their houses had been set ablaze by security forces.

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The opposition conference in Damascus on Sunday is organized by the internal opposition's main umbrella group, the National Coordination Body.

Last July, a similar conference was cancelled after the owner of the venue was threatened by Assad's forces who fired on a pro-democracy protest outside, killing 14.

Opposition groups say Russia and China, which have blocked Western attempts to secure U.N. sanctions against Assad, have promised to exert influence to protect Sunday's meeting.

Rebel fighters in Syria claim to have seized another border crossing into Turkey, from the control of President Assad's government forces. But around the capital Damascus, the rebels are losing ground. Three southern suburbs have been retaken by the president's forces. ITV's Bill Neely reports from Damascus.

This article includes reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press.

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