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Syrian rebels need no-fly zone - opposition leader

ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad need the protection of foreign-guarded no-fly zones and safe havens near the borders with Jordan and Turkey, a Syrian opposition leader said on Sunday.

Battles raged on in the northern city of Aleppo, where tanks, artillery and snipers attacked rebels in the Saif al-Dawla district next to the devastated area of Salaheddine.

Abdelbasset Sida, head of the Syrian National Council, said the United States had realised that the absence of a no-fly zone to counter Assad's air superiority hindered rebel movements.

He was speaking a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her country and Turkey would study a range of possible measures to help Assad's foes, including a no-fly zone, although she indicated no decisions were necessarily imminent.

"It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions, but you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning," she said after meeting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul.

Though any intervention appears to be a distant prospect, her remarks were nevertheless the closest Washington has come to suggesting direct military action in Syria.

"There are areas that are being liberated," Sida told Reuters by telephone from Istanbul. "But the problem is the aircraft, in addition to the artillery bombardment, causing killing, destruction."

He said the establishment of secure areas on the borders with Jordan and Turkey "was an essential thing that would confirm to the regime that its power is diminishing bit by bit".

A no-fly zone imposed by NATO and Arab allies helped Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year. The West has shown little appetite for repeating any Libya-style action in Syria, and Russia and China strongly oppose any such intervention.

TANKS ADVANCE

Insurgents have expanded territory they hold near the Turkish border in the last few weeks since the Syrian army gathered its forces for an offensive to regain control of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and economic hub.

Rebels who seized swathes of the city three weeks ago have been fighting to hold their ground against troops backed by warplanes, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery.

One rebel commander named Yasir Osman, 35, told Reuters tanks had advanced into Salaheddine, despite attempts to fend them off by 150 fighters he said were short of ammunition.

"Yesterday we encircled the Salaheddine petrol station, which the army has been using as a base and we killed its commander and took a lot of ammunition and weapons. This ammunition is what we are using fight today," he said.

Osman said army tanks had thrust past a roundabout in Salaheddine visited by a Reuters team on Saturday after accompanying rebels on a mazy route through holes punched in apartment walls to create a passage safe from army snipers.

After emerging at the roundabout, sniper fire started up, then a tank could be heard rumbling in the next street. "Tank, tank, tank," one man yelled.

Quickly, a rebel shifted a rocket-propelled grenade over his shoulder and squatted on the rubble-strewn ground to fire, but minutes later, a tank shell exploded against a nearby building.

Rebels fired another RPG, answered with a rain of mortar bombs filling the sky with smoke and shrapnel. "They're going to send more mortars. Hide in the doorway," one rebel screamed.

The uneven battle showed the disparity in firepower between Assad's forces and their outgunned opponents.

ASSAD SWEARS IN NEW PREMIER

Aleppo and the capital Damascus, where troops snuffed out a rebel offensive last month, are vital to Assad's struggle for the survival of a ruling system his family and members of his minority Alawite clan have dominated for four decades.

Assad has suffered some painful, but not yet fatal, setbacks away from the battlefield, losing four of his closest aides in a bomb explosion on July 18 and suffering the embarrassment of seeing his prime minister defect and flee to Jordan last week.

Syrian state television showed Assad swearing in Wael al-Halki on Saturday to replace Riyad Hijab, who had only spent two months in the job. Halki is a Sunni Muslim from the southern province of Deraa where the uprising began 17 months ago.

The deputy police commander in the central province of Homs was the latest to join a steady trickle of desertions, said an official in the opposition Higher Revolution Council group.

"Brigadier General Ibrahim al-Jabawi has crossed into Jordan," the official told Reuters from Amman.

Ali Abbas, a journalist for the state news agency SANA, was killed on Saturday night by what the agency called "an armed terrorist group", referring to anti-Assad rebels.

At least 11 people were killed the same day when the military mounted an armoured attack to try to dislodge rebels from al-Tel, a northern suburb of Damascus, activists said.

More than 160 Syrians, including 116 civilians, were killed across the country on Saturday, the London-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The Arab League said it had postponed a meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled for Sunday to discuss the Syria crisis and to select a replacement for Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy, and would set a new date.

Deputy Arab League chief Ahmed Ben Helli told Reuters the meeting was delayed because of a minor operation undergone by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are the leading regional supporters of the Syrian opposition. Assad's main backers are Iran and Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Ayman Samir in Cairo; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Angus MacSwan)