BEIRUT – Heavy fighting shook the Syrian city of Aleppo as the exiled opposition chief said for the first time that President Bashar al-Assad's ouster need not be a pre-condition for peace talks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said meanwhile that "military pressure" may be needed to oust Assad, as Moscow announced it would host a fresh round of peace talks next month.
An attack on Thursday targeting leaders of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front killed several leaders of the Al-Qaeda affiliate in the northwestern province of Idlib, a monitoring group said.
Al-Nusra fighters were involved in a spectacular assault on Wednesday on an air force intelligence headquarters in Aleppo, Syria's second city where regime forces and rebels were engaged in fierce clashes.
The attack, which began with a powerful explosives blast in a tunnel dug near the building, left at least 20 members of regime security forces and 14 rebels dead.
A Syrian military source said the army had on Thursday launched an attack "against (rebel) gunmen positions" in the area, "killing and wounding many of them".
Regime forces also struck rebel-held territory in the east of the city, killing at least 22 civilians, including three children, in a single barrel bomb attack, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Aleppo has been hit by significant violence this week after the opposition rejected a UN plan for a temporary ceasefire in the divided and devastated city, once Syria's main commercial hub.
A UN delegation was in the city to push a plan for a temporary "freeze" of fighting in Aleppo which was rejected by the opposition on Sunday – part of a range of efforts to resolve a conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead since March 2011.
The UN Security Council is set to vote today on a US-drafted resolution that threatens measures against the Syrian regime over its alleged use of chlorine bombs in attacks on villages between April and August last year.
The United States drafted the resolution, which "condemns in the strongest terms any use of any toxic chemical, such as chlorine, as a weapon in the Syrian Arab Republic."
Opposition seeks 'common ground'
Opposition National Coalition chief Khaled Khoja said a "new strategy" was needed and that while Assad's overthrow was still the final aim, it was not necessary for the start of a process to end Syria's conflict.
"We insist on the goal of toppling Assad and the security services... It is not necessary to have these conditions at the beginning of the process, but it is... necessary to end the process with a new regime and a new free Syria," he said.
Khoja also softened the coalition's previous refusal to work with Damascus-tolerated opposition groups, saying he wants "a common ground" with other dissidents and to "establish a new framework for the Syrian opposition". The country's main domestic opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), said Khoja's comments marked a welcome change.
"Any statement calling for the unification of the opposition is certainly positive, but concrete actions and effective positions are more important," NCCDC spokesman Monzer Khaddam said.
He also praised the coalition for being prepared to drop its pre-condition for Assad to step down, saying the issue had been raised in joint opposition talks in Paris two weeks ago.
"We tried in Paris to convince them that all pre-conditions in no way help in finding a political solution in Syria," Khaddam said.
Moscow meanwhile said it would host talks between representatives of Assad's regime and opposition figures in April, three months after a meeting between the parties ended without any concrete results. — AFP