Syria burns, Iran steps in as mediator

Clashes between government troops and rebels raged Thursday in opposition bastions of the besieged city of Aleppo as President Bashar Assad's key state backer Iran hosted a gathering of countries for talks on how to end the conflict.

Tehran billed the conference as an attempt to start an alternative political process, separate from Western-led initiatives, to encourage all sides to negotiate.

Speaking at the opening of the conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said his country rejects any foreign and military intervention in Syria and accused rebels of using civilians as "human shields".'

Syrian rebels last week intercepted a bus carrying 48 Iranians in a Damascus suburb and seized them. Rebels claimed the men are military personnel, including some members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, who were on a "reconnaissance mission'" to help Assad's crackdown.

Iran, however, says the 48 were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus. Salehi said some of the pilgrims are retired members of the army and Revolutionary Guard.

The regime, meanwhile, pressed its assault on Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub, for a second day. But blistering attacks on rebel positions from the ground and the air appear to be only slowly chipping away at the opposition's grip on its strongholds.

State news agency SANA claimed Assad's force had regained control of the Salaheddine neighborhood, the main rebel area in Aleppo. But activists said rebels were still putting up a fight there on Thursday.

"It's difficult to know exactly what's going on because of the scale of the bombing, but the rebels are still fighting,'' Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed told The Associated Press by Skype.

Syrian fighter jets struck Tel Rifat on Thursday, hitting a home and a high school and killing six people from one family, residents said.

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