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Islamist Syrian rebels seize strategic town near Aleppo

Islamist rebels are reported to have seized a strategic town near the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Syrian and Russian governments denied targeting a refugee camp that was bombed, killing 28 civilians.

Rebel fighters took control of the town of Khan Touman and surrounding villages, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Friday.

At least 43 rebels were reported to have died in the fighting, as well as 30 soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The town is seen as strategically important because it links Aleppo to the capital, Damascus.

Opposition media activist Bahaa al-Halaby told the AP news agency the insurgents had taken control of Khan Touman around 7 a.m. local time (0500 UTC). The clashes were said to have lasted less than 24 hours.

The alliance of Islamist forces known as Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, comprises a core of militants from al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, as well as other conservative factions. Some non-jihadi rebels were also said to have fought on the side of the rebel coalition, although the Free Syrian Army, which has backed

diplomatic efforts to end the conflict,

was not said to have been taking part.

Government troops had driven the rebels out of Khan Touman, some 6 kilometers (4 miles) southwest of Aleppo. In the city itself,

a truce between regime forces and rebels

was said to be holding.

Damascus denies targeting camp

Meanwhile, the Syrian military denied responsibility for

airstrikes that killed at least 28 people at a refugee camp in Sarmada,

near the Turkish border.

"There is no truth in the information in some media that the Syrian air force targeted the displaced camp in Idlib province," the official SANA news agency quoted the military as saying.

A Russian military spokesman said on Friday that no Russian aircraft had flown over the Sarmada camp.

"Judging by the damage shown in photographs and video, the camp may have been shelled either on purpose or by mistake by multiple rocket launchers that are currently being used very actively in this area by terrorists from Al-Nusra," spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.

The Syrian army command said it had "confirmed information that some terrorist groups, at behest of foreign quarters, have recently begun carrying out deliberate hits on civilian targets."

The UN's humanitarian affairs chief, Stephen O'Brien, said on Friday that he was "horrified and sickened" by the airstrikes, adding that they

may constitute a war crime.

The town lies in rebel-held territory in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, about 40 kilometers west of Aleppo. At least seven children were among the 30 victims, the watchdog said.

The refugees targeted in the strikes had reportedly been sheltering from fighting in Syria's northern hub of Aleppo and Palmyra.

"If this obscene attack is found to be a deliberate targeting of a civilian structure, it could amount to a war crime," O'Brien said.

rc/sms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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