WORLD NEWS TOMORROW – Syrian rebels have waged fierce battles with regime troops in a town along the Iraqi border, capturing a string of security posts and the local police headquarters despite heavy government shelling and bombing runs by warplanes, activists said.

The rebel advances in the town of al-Bukamal in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour coincided with the departure from the Syrian capital of the last of the United Nations military observers after their mission headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, meant to help end the bloodshed in Syria, failed.

The seemingly intractable conflict in Syria has defied all attempts at mediation. Human rights groups say more than 20,000 people have been killed since the uprising against president Bashar Assad began in March 2011, and in the past month the fighting has spread from the country’s smaller towns and cities to regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo.

Mr Annan announced earlier this month that he will resign on August 31, and will be replaced by veteran diplomat Lakhdar Ibrahimi on September 1. In Damascus, Syrian deputy foreign minister Faysal Mekdad denied rebel claims that a Japanese journalist who died in the northern city of Aleppo this week was killed by government troops.

“Any journalist who behaves in an irresponsible way should expect all these difficult possibilities,” he said following a meeting with Babacare Gaye, the head of the outgoing UN mission. Veteran Japanese war correspondent Mika Yamamoto was killed on Monday, becoming the first foreign journalist to die in Aleppo since clashes between rebels and regime forces erupted there almost a month ago.

Rebels have said she was killed by regime forces. Japan’s foreign ministry said she was hit by gunfire while travelling with rebels from the Free Syrian Army. Mr Mekdad said Ms Yamamoto was killed by “armed groups” to frame the Syrian army.

Fighting raged, meanwhile, in al-Bukamal, which is located across the border from the Iraqi town of Qaim. The border crossing has been in rebel hands since last month, but wresting control of al-Bukamal itself from regime troops would expand the opposition foothold along the frontier.

The opposition already controls a wide swath of territory along the border with Turkey in the north as well as pockets along the frontier with Jordan to the south and Lebanon to the west, which has proven key in ferrying people and material into and out of the country.

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