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Syria Conflict: Rebels Set Free One Kidnapped Lebanese

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Syrian boys play next to a house destroyed in a Syrian government bombing last week that killed more than 40 people, in Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen) LINK
Syrian boys play next to a house destroyed in a Syrian government bombing last week that killed more than 40 people, in Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen) LINK

BEIRUT — Turkey on Saturday secured the release of one of 11 Shiite Lebanese hostages held for three months by Syrian rebels, a move that underlined Ankara's growing influence in the Arab world. In Syria itself, activists reported the discovery of up to 50 bodies in a Damascus suburb stormed by government forces after heavy clashes this week.

Hussein Ali Omar, 60, crossed into Turkey after his release and later arrived in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, aboard a private Turkish jet.

"Our treatment (by the Syrian captors) was excellent and the Lebanese (hostages) are well," said Omar.

He was dressed in a white shirt and a red tie bearing an image of the Turkish flag that he said he was wearing "in recognition of Turkey's efforts to free me."

In Syria, activists reported clashes between rebels and government troops as well as shelling in different areas, including the northern province of Aleppo, the district of Idlib, the eastern region of Deir el-Zour and Daraa in the south.

The activists also reported violence in some suburbs of the capital, Damascus, including Daraya, which government troops stormed on Thursday. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said between 40 and 50 bodies were discovered Saturday in Daraya. It did not say whether the bodies belonged to civilians or rebel fighters.

The Observatory said 109 people have been killed in clashes in Daraya alone over the past four days.

The discovery of dead bodies in areas where fighting has taken place has become routine in the 17-month-old Syrian conflict, which activists say has killed at least 20,000 people since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.

In all, the Observatory said the death toll in Syria on Saturday reached 130. It is impossible to independently verify such figures or any of the fighting reports provided by the activists. The Syrian government places severe restrictions on the local media's coverage of the civil war as well the meager number of foreign journalists it allows in the country.

Omar's release came a week after Shiite Lebanese tribesmen kidnapped two Turks and more than 20 Syrians to force the rebels to release Lebanese national Hassane al-Mikdad, who the rebels captured near the Syrian capital, Damascus, and accused of being a member of Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

The al-Mikdad, a powerful Shiite clan in Lebanon, later released all but four of the Syrians it was holding.

The 11 Lebanese Shiites were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. A previously unknown group calling itself "Syrian Rebels in Aleppo" claimed responsibility.

The group demanded that Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah apologize for his comments in support of Assad. Nasrallah, an ally of the Syrian regime, has said the abduction would not change Hezbollah's stance.

In a statement on Saturday, Turkey's Foreign Ministry said Ankara would continue to try to win the freedom of the rest of the hostages. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu later called for the release of the two Turks held in Lebanon.

Ankara, he said, would not accept the "concept of a hostage exchange" and cannot be held responsible for the kidnappings in Syria.

"There is a lack of public order in Syria and a state of anarchy," Davutoglu said. "No one has the excuse to kidnap a Turkish national."

Turkey, which is mainly Sunni, was a close Syrian ally until shortly after the uprising against Assad's regime began in March, 2011. Relations between the two neighbors have since rapidly deteriorated, with Ankara siding with the rebels against the regime.

Some 75,000 Syrians have found refuge from the violence in Turkey. The commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army and some of the main opposition groups also are based there. Damascus routinely singles out Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the rebels' main foreign backers.

Mohammed Nour, a rebel spokesman in the northern Syrian town of Azaz, said in a statement read on TV that Omar's release was in response to a request by Lebanon's Association of Muslim Scholars and an adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He did not say what they will do with the remaining 10 Lebanese Shiites but repeated his call for Hezbollah to "specify their stance regarding the Syrian people and revolution."

Syria's 18-month crisis also has sparked outright fighting in neighboring Lebanon, where pro- and anti-Syrian group have clashed since Monday in the northern city of Tripoli. The latest violence in Tripoli has killed at least 17 people and wounded more than a 100.

The unrest in Tripoli, which pits Alawites against Sunnis, reflects the strong sectarian undertones of the Syrian conflict. Assad is a member of Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The rebels seeking to topple his regime are Sunni Arabs.

The state-run SANA news agency reported heavy clashes in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial capital, saying that "many terrorists" were killed or wounded. The Syrian regime frequently refers to those who oppose it as "terrorists."

Aleppo has been the scene of heavy fighting for nearly a month since rebels launched an assault on the city, seizing control of several neighborhoods. The regime has waged a fierce offensive in a bid to regain control of Aleppo, but so far has struggled to snuff out the rebel campaign.

The Observatory, which has a nationwide network of activists inside Syria who monitor violence and abuses, said clashes in the eastern town of al-Bukamal on the border with Iraq were concentrated near an air defense base. Al-Bukamal is in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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