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Deaths in Idlib as UN expands mission

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Violence in Syria has killed eight people, activists say, even as a UN mission charged with overseeing a battered truce neared half its planned strength.

In the northwestern province of Idlib, security force gunfire killed a man and a woman during a series of raids, activists said on Saturday.

Also in the province, a UK-based rights group said four soldiers were killed in clashes between armed rebel groups and regime forces in Hantuten village.

"Violent clashes are raging between Syrian regime forces and armed military defectors ... The sounds of strong explosions were heard followed by security forces using heavy and medium machinegun fire," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In the central Hama province, a civilian was reportedly killed in pre-dawn shelling of the village of Mork.

Another civilian was killed by sniper fire in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor, activists said.

The persistent violence came as the UN mission in Syria said it now had 145 military observers on the ground, just shy of half the force of 300 authorised by the Security Council. They are backed by 56 civilian staff.

The observers are tasked with shoring up a promised ceasefire brokered by UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan that was supposed to take effect on April 12 but which has been broken daily.

Funeral in Damascus

Meanwhile, in Damascus, people on Saturday attended funerals for victims killed in Thursday's bomb attack at al-Othman mosque in the capital city.

Two suicide car bombers killed 55 people and wounded 372 in Damascus, state media said, the deadliest bomb attacks in the Syrian capital since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began 14 months ago.

In a separate development, two Turkish journalists who were detained for two months in Syria were freed by authorities following mediation by Iran.

Hamit Coskun, a cameraman, and reporter Adem Ozkose, of the newspaper Milat, entered Syria in early March to film a documentary on the crackdown on dissent in the country.

In remarks on his Twitter account, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said that his government was sending a plane to bring them home after they were flown into Tehran.

The two men were last seen on March 9 near the opposition stronghold of Idlib, in the northwest near the border with Turkey.

The Turkish news agency Anatolia, quoting local Syrian sources and witnesses, reported that the two men were arrested by a pro-government armed group and then handed over to Syrian intelligence.

Ankara, a former ally of Damascus, has called on the thousands of Turks who reside in Syria to leave the country.

More than 11,000 people have died in the unrest that began in March 2011, according to aid groups.

Erdogan has called on Syrian Assad to step down.


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