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Oct 23, 1:14 PM EDT

Hezbollah to stay in Syria until 'apostate project' defeated

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Hezbollah to stay in Syria until 'apostate project' defeated

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BEIRUT (AP) -- Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah cast the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad as a facade designed to weaken Iran's regional access and make "changes to the map", vowing to stay in the country until it could "defeat the apostate project."

Nasrallah in a speech Sunday afternoon said the Syrian rebellion is "not about the fall of the regime, but about targeting the axis of resistance," a reference to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance. Assad, whose Alawite sect is on offshoot of Shiite Islam, has long provided a corridor for Iranian weapons shipments to the Lebanese Shiite militant group. Thousands of Hezbollah fighters are on the ground in Syria in defense of Assad's government and senior commanders in Iran's powerful Republican Guard are in advisory positions.

The speech came as fighting for the northern Syrian city of Aleppo escalated after a cease-fire to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city's eastern quarters expired Saturday night. No evacuations were seen during the three-day window arranged by the Russian and Syrian military commands.

A leading northern Syrian rebel coalition warned civilians in Aleppo to stay away from government positions around the contested city early Sunday as rebels and pro-government forces clashed along the city's outskirts.

Government artillery shelled the strategically important village of Khan Touman, which overlooks the highway connecting Aleppo and government-held cities in the center of the country, the activist-run Shahba Press reported Sunday. Rebels led by al-Qaida-linked militants took the town from government forces in a surprising advance last May, dealing a setback to the joint Russian-Syrian campaign to expel rebels from Aleppo.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported incremental advances for pro-government forces against al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front militants in the city's southern countryside.

Al-Manar TV, run by Hezbollah, broadcast footage of tanks and fighters advancing under heavy fire along a ridge reportedly in the Aleppo countryside.

A spokesman for the Nour el-Din al-Zinki rebel faction in Aleppo said an operation to break the government's siege of the rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo was "coming."

Yasser al-Yousef clarified rebels would not target civilians in Aleppo's government-held districts, but warned of collateral damage from the anticipated operations.

The fighting ran in parallel with renewed clashes further away from the city between Turkish-backed opposition forces and Syrian Kurdish forces over territory formerly held by the Islamic State group. The activist-run Aleppo Media Center said Turkish forces struck over 50 Kurdish positions on Sunday alone. The U.S. has backed both the Turkish-backed forces and the Syrian Kurdish forces in the area, though it has clarified that it does not support the Syrian Kurdish forces that have come under Turkish attack in the Aleppo countryside.

The Turkish military intervened in the Syrian war in August this year under orders from Ankara to clear the border area of Islamic State fighters and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces linked to Turkey's own outlawed Kurdish insurgency. The Turkish government considers both to be terrorist groups.

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