PARIS Syrian rebels have acquired heavy weapons that have forced the government's air force to bomb rebel-held zones indiscriminately from high altitude, France's foreign minister said before meeting rebel groups on Wednesday.
Laurent Fabius, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's harshest critics, made his comments ahead of a closed door conference in Paris with civilian members of rebel councils that run areas seized from central government control.
They included representatives from Maarat al-Numan, a town whose seizure last week cut the main route from Damascus to Aleppo.
"In a certain number of these zones, Bashar al-Assad is bombarding them with MiG fighter jets, and what is particularly horrible is that he is bombarding them with TNT," Fabius said.
"But at the same time there are now weapons that are forcing the planes to fly extremely high, and so the strikes are less accurate," he told reporters.
Amateur footage of rebels using shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles have emerged in recent days. On Wednesday, activists posted videos of what they said was a Syrian military helicopter spiralling to the ground and exploding in flames.
Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the helicopter had been downed near Maarat al-Numan. "Some rebels say they used anti-aircraft missiles," he told Reuters by phone from Britain.
Fabius said Syrian government forces were also indiscriminately dropping cluster bombs, a charge levelled by Human Rights Watch on Sunday but denied by Damascus.
Cluster bombs explode in the air, scattering dozens of smaller bomblets over an area the size of a sports field. Most nations have banned their use under a convention that became international law in 2010, but which Syria has not signed.
Outgunned rebels have struggled to turn the tide of the 19-month conflict against government forces equipped with tanks, jets and helicopter gunships.
Western powers have been reluctant to arm the insurgents because they lack a coherent leadership and because of fears that weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist militants who are increasingly evident in the conflict.
France began channelling money and humanitarian aid to rebel-held parts of Syria in August so that the areas could run themselves as part of efforts to create an alternative to the Damascus government.
However, the French plan falls well short of the foreign-protected safe havens the opposition says it needs and offers little hope of relief to civilians fleeing the chaos.
Russia, which has been Assad's primary arms supplier, and China have vetoed three resolutions favoured by Western powers condemning Syrian authorities and opening the way to U.N. sanctions on Damascus.
Fabius said Moscow's stance would only cement chaos in Syria, adding that he had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that: "If you continue to oppose a change of regime, then the extremists risk taking control."
(Reporting By Nicholas Vincour in Paris and Ayat Basma in Beirut; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Jon Boyle)