NEAR ALEPPO (SYRIA): Syrian rebels on Thursday bombarded an air base being used by regime forces to pound the northern city of Aleppo, as a rights watchdog reported 43 people killed in a raid near the capital Damascus.
"Menagh military airport was bombarded on Thursday morning by a tank captured previously by the rebels," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said of the base 30km northwest of the country's commercial capital.
An AFP reporter who heard and saw the bombardment said rebels told him it was "an attack to take this airport being used by helicopters and planes that are firing on Aleppo."
The United Nations confirmed on Wednesday that rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad's regime now had heavy armour, and that its military observers had seen the Syrian military use a fighter jet to attack rebels in Aleppo.
AFP correspondents on the ground have reported that rebels have captured a number of tanks, and some armoured units have defected with their vehicles.
Thursday's air base assault comes after US President Barack Obama was reported to have signed a covert document authorising US support for the rebels.
The directive was contained in a "finding" - a device authorising clandestine action by the Central Intelligence Agency, NBC and CNN said, citing unidentified sources.
White House officials declined to comment on the reports, but did not specifically rule out the idea that Washington was providing more intelligence support to anti-Assad forces than had previously been made public.
The Syrian Observatory said on Thursday a raid by security forces southwest of Damascus killed 43 people, some of whom were tortured and executed.
"Regime forces entered the Jdaidet Artuz district on Wednesday and arrested around 100 young people who were taken to a school and tortured," it said in a statement.
"On Thursday morning after the operation the bodies of 43 people were recovered. Some of them had been summarily executed."
The Observatory had on Wednesday reported 28 civilians killed in the raid.
Assad said on Wednesday that the army was fighting for the nation's future as the rebels said they were now turning their sights on the regime's intelligence apparatus in the battle for Aleppo, which has raged since July 20.
He said the campaign to crush the uprising, now in its 17th month, was vital to Syria's future.
Washington said his call to continue the "slaughter" which human rights monitors say has already killed more than 20,000 people was "despicable."
"The army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle... on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests," Assad said, in a speech carried by the official SANA news agency.
Washington mocked Assad as "cowardly" for not delivering his speech to mark armed forces day in public.
"We think it's cowardly quite frankly to have a man who's hiding out of sight be exhorting his armed forces to continue to slaughter the civilians of his own country," said a US State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell.
But his optimism was belied by the fierce fighting in Aleppo, where rebels continued to put up determined resistance to an army counter-offensive launched on Saturday.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky stressed that UN leader Ban Ki-moon wants united international pressure on both sides in the civil war.
He said pressure should be brought to bear on "not just the Syrian government forces - who of course bear the lion's share of the responsibility for what is happening - but also on the opposition forces, to ensure that they do heed the calls, that they do stop the fighting."
The UN General Assembly will on Friday vote on an Arab-drafted largely symbolic resolution calling on Assad to stand down.
The Free Syrian Army's military chief in Aleppo, Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, said the rebels had "thousands" of fighters in Aleppo.
"The regime says it is fighting 'terrorist groups.' We tell the regime that we will chase them because they are the terrorists," Oqaidi told AFP. "We will go after them in the whole of Aleppo, until the city is liberated."
Rebel commander Ferzat Abdel Nasser, an army general who defected a month ago said: "The most important thing is to take over the intelligence branches. If these sites fall, victory is possible."
FSA spokesman Kassem Saadeddine said the rebels controlled half of Aleppo city and most of its province.
"We hope to create a safe zone in Aleppo and (the northwestern province of) Idlib," on the border with Turkey, said Saadeddine. Idlib and Aleppo are northern Syria's two main cities.
A safe zone would enable rebels to bring in weapons more easily from nearby Turkey, and to set up a more organised military structure.
The World Food Programme said it had sent food assistance for distribution to 28,000 people in Aleppo over the next few days. "The humanitarian situation is deteriorating in Aleppo and food needs are growing rapidly," the UN agency said.
The United Nations says that some 200,000 of the city's estimated 2.7 million population have fled their homes, many of them taking refuge in schools and other public buildings.
Nationwide a total of 163 people were killed in violence on Wednesday - 98 civilians, 20 rebels and 45 soldiers - the Observatory said.