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Syrian rebels storm prison; tunnels found near capital

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Rebels stormed a prison and freed some 300 prisoners in northwest Syria, activists said Saturday, while government troops attacked rebel-held areas near the capital and discovered three tunnels for smuggling weapons.

"Clashes started around and inside the central prison in Idlib province late Friday and rebels managed to enter the facility and free some 300 prisoners," activist Abu Mohammed al-Idlibi said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights posted a video showing what it claimed was the release of prisoners in Idlib.

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Syria's pro-government television stations said heavy fighting was still raging near the vicinity of the prison. Quoting a source in the area, al-Dunia television reported that army reinforcements have been sent to the prison, and that all communications with the facility have been cut off.

Elsewhere, activists in Damascus reported a car bomb blast in the al-Zahira neighborhood. They said they were unable to give a report on casualties, as troops immediately cordoned off the area.

Government buildings have increasingly become targets in Syria.

Syria's official television broadcaster reported that government troops raided several rebel-held regions near the capital and uncovered at least three tunnels used by opposition fighters to smuggle weapons.

The state-run Syrian News Agency, SANA, said that tunnels were discovered near Daraya, south of the capital.

Syrian troops have been trying to capture Daraya for weeks, but have faced strong resistance from hundreds of rebels holed up in the area. Daraya is a strategic area for the regime, as it is close to a major military air base.

Activists on Saturday said at least 85 people were killed in violence across Syria, among them 11 children, in an air raid in the northern province of Aleppo.

In neighboring Lebanon, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos arrived in Beirut from Turkey. Amos is due to meet with Lebanese officials on Sunday to assess the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The visit comes amid concerns regarding the influx in the number of Syrian refugees flocking into neighboring countries, especially to Jordan.

More than 30,000 Syrians have arrived this year at the Zaatri camp, the main camp in Jordan. This number includes 4,400 on Thursday and another 2,000 overnight, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.

Britain meanwhile, announced that it will provide 21 million pounds ($33.2 million) in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and the region.

British International Development Secretary Justine Greening said during a visit to Jordan on Saturday that the aid includes winter clothing, food and medicine for Syrian refugees.

"Ten million pounds of the new funding will help Jordan cope with the growing number of Syrian refugees, as thousands continue to cross its borders daily. The remaining funds will provide vital aid to those affected by the crisis in Syria and across the region," Greening said.

Also Saturday, NATO said the first of six Patriot missile batteries, which were deployed to protect Turkey from Syrian threats, were operational along the two countries' shared border.

"The battery, provided by the Netherlands, will help to protect the city and people of Adana (southern Turkey) against missile threats," a statement said.

NATO decided in December to deploy the batteries upon Turkey's request. In October, Syrian artillery shells hit the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five people.

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian government official said any foreign attack upon Syria would be considered an attack upon Iran.

"A military attack against Syria would also be an attack against Iran. Syria is, in the region, part of a golden ring of resistance (against Israel). For this reason, an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran's allies," said Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to the Mehr news agency.

Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and considers Damascus part of an axis of opposition to Israeli and Western influence in the Middle East.

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