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Paris backs Syria no-fly zone as fighting grows

BEIRUT, Lebanon — France signaled Thursday that it was prepared to take part in enforcing a partial no-fly zone over Syria, piling pressure on President Bashar Assad's embattled regime as it widens a major offensive against rebels in Damascus and surrounding areas.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged the international community to consider backing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, but cautioned that closing the Arab nation's entire air space would be tantamount to "going to war" and require a willing international coalition that does not yet exist.

For now, he suggested that a partial closure — which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was considering — should be studied.

Syria's chief backer, Russia, meanwhile, said it was working closely with the Damascus government to ensure that its arsenal of chemical weapons stays under firm control and has won promises that it will not be used or moved.

In Syria, troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into the Damascus suburb of Daraya, the scene of intense fighting over the last two days. At least 18 people were killed.

Across the country, at least 100 people died Thursday in shelling and clashes, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.

The bloodshed coincided with the departure from the Syrian capital of the last of the United Nations military observers after their mission failed. The observers were part of a six-point peace plan by outgoing envoy Kofi Annan.

As the country slides deeper into civil war, activist groups now routinely report the deaths of 100 to 250 people on a daily basis, but it is virtually impossible to verify these figures.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that an American freelance journalist who has been reporting from Syria for the Post, McClatchy Newspapers and other outlets had not been heard from in more than a week.

Austin Tice, 31, spent time with rebel fighters in the north after entering Syria from Turkey in May, then traveled to Damascus, where he was one of the few Western journalists reporting from the capital.

"We're focused intensively on trying to ascertain his whereabouts and ensure his safe return," Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli said in a statement.

Paris backs Syria no-fly zone as fighting grows 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 11:10pm]
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