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Rebels 'take' Syrian town as Kerry lobbies against Assad

Syrian activists say rebels, including jihadists, have taken the historic Christian town of Maaloula. Arab League ministers visiting Paris are hearing the US case for military strikes in Syria from the top US diplomat.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet Arab League ministers in Paris on Sunday before heading to London as he tried to rally support for President Barack Obama's plan to strike Syria's regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons on August 21 in an eastern district of Damascus.

This comes as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that Maaloula had fallen to rebels fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"Overnight, Syrian regime troops moved into the village, but rebel forces sent reinforcements and were able to take control of the entire town," the Britain-based opposition group said.

The battle had cost at least 17 lives, and the rebels included Al-Nursa Front jihadists, the Observatory said.

Maaloula, which lies northeast of Damascus, is home to minority Christians who speak the biblical language of Aramaic.

LA Times: Missiles over 3 days

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, said the Pentagon plans three days of missile strikes on more than 50 targets within Syria. That would be longer and more intense than originally intended to pinpoint forces of President Assad.

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EU calls for Syria 'response'

The LA Times said US bomber aircraft as well as five US missile destroyers located in the eastern Mediterranean would launch missiles far out of range of Syrian air defenses. An US aircraft carrier group in the Red Sea could also fire missiles, it said.

EU stops short of action

Lobbying by Kerry took him to Vilnius, Lithuania, on Saturday where the European Union's 28 foreign ministers issued a statement that stopped short of approving military action, but said there was "strong evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible" for what they called "a war crime."

Obama is due to address the American nation on Tuesday, with the US Congress reportedly skeptical ahead of votes in the Senate and House of Representatives expected on Wednesday and Thursday.

House members 'skeptical'

According to a Washington Post, 111 members of the House have publicly declared their opposition to Obama's Syria resolution and a further 115 are leaning against it based on their public statements. Just 25 back a strike.

On Saturday, a US congressional panel posted videos of what it said were Syrian victims of the August attack, many of them children.

French President, Francois Hollande, who also backs strikes, said on Friday that Paris would wait for the results from samples taken in Damascus by UN inspectors.

Greeting Kerry in Paris on Saturday, French Foreign Minsiter Laurent Fabius (pictured above) told reporters there was "wide and growing support" for action on Syria.

Iran: 'Warmongering'

Javad Zarif, the new foreign minister of Iran, which backed Assad during Syria's more than two-year civil war, was quoted by official Iranian media on Sunday as saying that Iran was "more worried" by "warmongering."

He added that Obama's failure to win broad support for military action at a G20 summit in Russian on Friday would result in "definite isolation" for the US.

Papal appeals for peace

At the Vatican late on Saturday, Pope Francis told 100,000 people that the world must avert a widening of the Syria conflict.

"We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep," Francis said. "Violence and war lead only to death."

"Open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation," he added during a five-hour prayer service on a day of global fasting he had called for peace in Syria.

ipj/tj (dpa, epd, AFP, AP)

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