BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian warplanes bombed Damascus suburbs and rebel-held areas in the country's north Wednesday as the government blasted the European Union for endorsing a newly formed opposition coalition.
The raids struck several eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital and the strategic northern city of Maaret al-Numan, a key supply route linking Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo, said two activist groups. Both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees also reported violence elsewhere in Syria.
The state-run news agency SANA said the army continued its pursuit of "terrorists" — a government term for rebel fighters — in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, inflicting casualties on the enemy. The report also said that attackers targeted a mosque in Daraya suburb.
Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with an uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts. The crisis has since morphed into a civil war, with scores of rebel groups across the country fighting government troops. Nearly 40,000 people have been killed in the 20 months of unrest, according to activists.
The civil war has often spilled over to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to the three neighboring countries as violence in Syria rages, raising fears of a wider war in the volatile region.
Turkey's government requested deployment of NATO's Patriot surface-to-air missiles on Wednesday to bolster its defenses along its border with Syria and prevent a spillover, NATO officials said.
Turkey first backed Assad in the uprising, but then called for his resignation as opposition gained strength earlier this year, throwing its support behind the rebels. Ankara has also been retaliating for shelling and mortar fire from Syria. The first incident was Oct. 3, when shells from Syria struck a Turkish village near the Syrian border, killing two women and three children.
NATO doesn't want to be drawn into the Syrian conflict, saying it would consider deploying the missiles purely to protect Turkey, a member country.
"Allies will discuss this without delay," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Twitter. In a separate statement, he said the deployment would augment alliance member Turkey's air defense capabilities and "would contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along NATO's southeastern border."
Assad's regime blames the revolt on a foreign conspiracy and accuses Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the United States, other Western countries and Turkey, of funding, training and arming the rebels.
Damascus on Wednesday criticized the European Union for recognizing the newly formed Syrian opposition coalition as a legitimate voice of the Syrian people.
In a front-page editorial, the state-run daily Al-Thawra newspaper derided the coalition formed earlier this month as a "deformed" newborn baby, saying all possible "cosmetic surgeries do not bode well for the evolution of this monster."
EU's 27 foreign ministers recognized the Syrian coalition during their monthly meeting this week.
The National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was formed Nov. 11 in Qatar under pressure from the United States for a stronger, more united opposition body to serve as a counterweight to the more extremist forces fighting Assad's regime.
The endorsement was a major step forward in the West's acceptance of the group, even as fast-moving events and fluid alliances have cast doubts on the direction of the rebellion. The international support comes at a difficult time for the new coalition as Syria's disparate opposition groups have been long plagued by divisions and infighting.
A group of extremist Islamist factions in Syria on Sunday rejected the new coalition, saying in a video statement they have formed an "Islamic state" in the embattled city of Aleppo to underline that they want nothing to do with the Western-backed bloc.
For the government, the Islamists are evidence of the militant and sectarian nature of the conflict. The rebels are mostly Sunni Muslim fighting against Assad's regime which is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.
Al-Thawra, the regime paper, said that meeting in Qatar failed to unite the opposition groups to "the extent that some (opposition) groups have announced the establishment of an Islamic State" in Syria.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.