Last updated: February 16. 2013 5:26PM - 114 Views

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BEIRUT — Government troops fought back rebels near the airport of battle-scarred Aleppo, Syria's state media said Friday, in the first official acknowledgement combat had neared a strategic gateway to the country's largest city.

As fighting raged in both Aleppo and the Syrian capital Damascus, the United Nations announced that Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. diplomat, would serve as the world body's new peace envoy, aiming to resume efforts for a diplomatic solution to what has become an intractable civil war.

Brahimi, who previously served as envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan, replaces former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who announced he would leave the post by the end of this month after failing to bring about a cease-fire despite months of negotiations.

The announcement came just as U.N. observers in Syria were beginning to pack their things on Friday in preparation to close down their mission. Deployment of the observers was one of the only steps taken under Annan's peace plan. The team was intended to watch over a cease-fire that never took hold, and so was left trying to chronicle some of the more egregious instances of bloodshed.

Both sides have "chosen the path of war," said the U.N.'s assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet. The U.N. plans to keep a small liaison office to support any future peace efforts.

The 17-month-old conflict between President Bashar Assad's regime and rebels trying to bring him down has left some 20,000 people dead, according to estimates by anti-Assad activists. The escalating fight has in the past two months turned to battles in the country's two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo — once firm bastions of Assad's rule. Rebels have managed to keep fighting in both cities despite facing overwhelming regime firepower.

In Damascus, activists reported heavy shelling and clashes in many areas Friday, including western districts believed to have rebel pockets.

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