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What you need to know about Syria today

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Mon September 3, 2012
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Opposition activists report 248 people killed in clashes nationwide Monday
  • NEW: Russia's foreign ministry says the opposition has threatened civilian aircraft
  • There is an "urgent need" for more humanitarian aid, a British official says
  • Syria's information minister calls on refugees to return immediately

(CNN) -- As violence raged in Syria, a government official Monday urged citizens who have fled the nation to come home immediately, saying they have no reason to fear.

"There is nothing at all which prevents the return of any Syrian citizen," Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said.

Here are the latest developments in the 18-month crisis.

On the ground: Government issues threats; clashes rage on

Al-Zoubi addressed various topics at a news conference in Damascus, and he reiterated his government's stance. He slammed the West, accusing Europe of not having an opinion of its own.

"European roles are always attached to U.S. roles. ... There are never independent European roles," he said at the conference aired by Iran's Press TV, a top ally of Syria.

Horrors of Syria documented
80,000+ Syrians seek refuge in Turkey
Are Syrian forces targeting civilians?

Al-Zoubi dismissed assertions that President Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy as "silly talk."

"They can speak now until the end of the year," he said.

The minister also reiterated al-Assad's disapproval of talks about buffer zones, warning that if any nation dares to set up one in Syria, it will fight back.

"If anyone whatsoever tries to touch Syria's national sovereignty, we will cut their arm off," he warned.

Late last month, Turkey's foreign minister suggested the need for a buffer zone to help disburse humanitarian aid and protect those fleeing the conflict.

Maintaining a stance the government has held all along, al-Zoubi said the army will continue battling "terrorists," a term the regime uses consistently to refer to those seeking the president's ouster.

"We will sit down for dialogue when the militants lay down arms," he said.

Opposition activists said new clashes killed at least 248 people nationwide Monday, including 62 who died in airstrikes and other attacks in Aleppo province.

The new tolls come after a bloody week: At least 1,600 people were killed in Syria last week, the deadliest week yet in the civil war, a spokesman for the United Nations' children's fund said. The death toll includes children.

Diplomacy: International envoy

Al-Zoubi said Syria remains committed to helping the United Nations and Arab League envoy accomplish his goals.

"The leadership will do its duty to the utmost level to cooperate with Lakhdar Brahimi," he said

His reassurance comes after Brahimi called on all parties in Syria to stop the violence.

"There is no doubt that this call goes first to the government," he told Al-Arabiya television.

Brahimi was appointed last month after previous envoy Kofi Annan stepped down.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross was scheduled to begin a three-day visit to Damascus on Monday. Peter Maurer, the organization's president, will "discuss pressing humanitarian issues" with al-Assad and top Cabinet officials, the Red Cross said in a statement.

The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the Syrian opposition, specifically the Free Syrian Army -- the rebel group that includes military defectors -- of threatening to shoot down and at civilian airplanes and airports.

"We see such threats as absolutely unacceptable. ... From moral and lawful standpoints, this means the opposition is critically approaching a 'red line' beyond which any actions are no different from those of al Qaeda," the ministry said in a statement.

Russia, which trades with Syria, has vetoed three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions that called for al-Assad to end the violence and step down.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told lawmakers Monday that there is an "urgent need" for countries to contribute more humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees.

He vowed that Britain will continue diplomatic efforts and is stepping up work with Syrian opposition groups.

"We have not ruled out any options as this crisis deepens," he said.

British officials are pushing for a political transition, providing humanitarian aid, increasing pressure on the regime, supporting justice for victims of human rights violations and planning assistance to a future Syrian government.

"The trend of international opinion is very clear, but the effort to change the minds of Moscow and Beijing has not yet been successful," Hague said.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius issued a strong warning to the Syrian president.

In an interview with CNN affiliate BFM-TV on Monday, Fabius said that if al-Assad were to use chemical weapons, France would have a "massive and lightning response ... meaning that he won't be able to do it."

Last week, French President Francois Hollande told French diplomats that for the international community, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime "would be a legitimate reason for direct intervention."

Backlash against journalists

Al-Zoubi dismissed the Free Syrian Army as nonexistent, saying it is a term coined by the media.

Adding to his backlash against journalists, al-Zoubi accused the media of being involved in killings and conspiring to unleash mayhem in the nation.

Such media groups will not get away with it, he said, without naming any organizations.

"A media war tribunal will hold different channels accountable. We have a lot of evidence and documents that prove that media outlets and certain people in these outlets are involved in different acts ... including assassinations and killings."

CNN's Igor Krotov, Esprit Smith and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.

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