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Fierce battles in Syria; US to raise aid to rebels

BEIRUT — An artillery shell slammed into a pickup truck, killing nine members of a family during fierce fighting on Friday in Syria as U.S. officials said the Obama administration is poised to send millions more in non-lethal military aid to rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad.

The attack that killed one woman, her four children and four nieces and nephews, who were all under 12, was the latest carnage to hit the northern town of Saraqeb. Just days earlier, a government airstrike killed at least 20 people, shattering store fronts and setting cars ablaze in the strategic town in Idlib province on the main highway from Syria's largest urban center of Aleppo.

Rebels have wrested much of the countryside of Idlib and other provinces in the north from regime forces, although government troops still control many military bases in the region from which they launch attacks — including airstrikes — on opposition-held areas.

Also on Friday, another 18 people were killed in heavy fighting in and around Homs, the country's third largest city near the Lebanese border, and a Syrian Army official was assassinated northeast of the capital, Damascus. The state-run SANA news agency said "terrorists" — the government's word for opposition fighters — shot and killed Syrian Army Col. Tamim Abdullah as he was driving home in Barzeh.

The assassination was the latest in a series of killings of government and security officials and regime supporters in the capital. A day earlier, Ali Ballan, the head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria's relief agency, was killed by gunmen as he was dining in a restaurant in Mazzeh, a western Damascus neighborhood.

More than 70,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war. The U.N. Security Council has been deadlocked for months on the Syrian war, and even the most modest attempts to end the bloodshed have failed.

Western and Arab nations blame the conflict on Assad's government. Russia insists on assigning equal blame for the suffering to the Syrian opposition and rebels fighting on the ground, and has cast vetoes, along with China, to block draft council resolutions. A U.N. envoy on Friday gave the Security Council a grim assessment of the two-year war, saying that the Assad government had been uncooperative in negotiations.

In Washington, U.S. officials said Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to announce a significant expansion of non-lethal military aid to the Syrian opposition at an international conference on Syria he will attend Saturday in Turkey. The officials told The Associated Press that Kerry is expected to announce a contribution of between $120 million and $130 million in defensive military supplies, which could include body armor, armored vehicles, night vision goggles and advanced communications equipment.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to preview Kerry's announcement publicly.

Also, the European Union is looking for ways to bolster the forces fighting to oust Assad, and is set to ease its oil embargo on Syria, two diplomats said Friday. The decision would allow the import of oil production technology and the sale of crude from territory held by the Syrian opposition, in close coordination with the movement's leaders, they said. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal decision by the bloc's 27 foreign ministers at a meeting Monday in Luxembourg.

For months, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been promoting a peace plan that would call for a transitional government in which Assad would step aside — a demand the Syrian president has repeatedly dismissed. After briefing the Security Council behind closed doors, Brahimi told reporters: "With the Syrians, I got nowhere."

He said there had been some progress with the Americans and the Russians, "but it is too little."

"If they really believe that they are in charge of looking after peace and security, there is no time for them to lose to really take this question more seriously than they have until now," Brahimi said.

Elsewhere in Syria, heavy fighting was reported near the contested town of Qusair in the central Syrian province of Homs, a day after government forces captured a town in the province and rebels seized a military base in the area. The 18 people killed in central Syrian died during the shelling of Deir Baalba district on the eastern edge of the city of Homs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group.

The border region in Homs is strategic because it also links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. The coast also is home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus. Assad's regime is dominated by his Alawites while the rebels are mostly from the country's Sunni majority.

Government forces on Thursday captured the town of Abel, cutting off the road between Homs and Qusair, according to Abdul-Rahman. He said the regime appeared to be trying to conduct a siege on Qusair.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said Syrian army warplanes bombarded the area around Qusair on Friday.

Both activist groups also reported heavy clashes in Damascus's southern suburb of Daraya, which the regime has been trying to recapture for months. They also reported clashes in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa in the north and in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began.

In the country's east, there were reports of heavy fighting in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province, with clashes between government troops and rebels concentrated on the airport in the outskirts of the provincial capital. There were no immediate reports on the casualties in the fighting.

Since late 2012, rebels have been seizing fields in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, one of two main centers of oil production. Most recently, they captured the Jbeysa oil field, one of the country's largest, after three days of fighting in February.

Before the uprising, the oil sector was a pillar of Syria's economy, with the country producing about 380,000 barrels a day and exports — mostly to Europe — bringing in more than $3 billion in 2010. Oil revenues provided around a quarter of the funds for the government budget.

Oil production now is likely about half that, according to estimates. The government has not released recent production figures.

The civil war continues to take a heavy toll on civilians.

More than 5 million Syrians have fled their homes because of the relentless fighting, seeking shelter in neighboring countries or in other parts of Syria where the violence has temporarily subsided.

In the past few weeks, U.N.'s humanitarian agencies have warned that they were running low on resources and that without additional funds they would be forced to scale back relief efforts.

On Thursday, U.N.'s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said children were starving to death in Syria and asked the Security Council to approve cross-border relief operations into Syria to deliver aid them and other civilians.

About half of the $1.5 billion needed to fund Syria's humanitarian needs through June has been collected, Amos said, noting a recent $300 million pledge from Kuwait.

Amos said 6.8 million Syrians were in need, with 4.25 million displaced within Syria and 1.3 million as refugees in neighboring countries.

AP writers Matthew Lee and Lara Jakes in Washington and Juergen Baetz in Brussels and Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this report.