DAMASCUS- Syria’s regime unleashed tank fire and air strikes on rebels Wednesday as it slammed France for recognising an opposition bloc formed in Qatar that it said amounted to a “declaration of war”.

Tanks shelled two Palestinian refugee camps in the opposition bastion of southern Damascus, while fighter jets bombed Maaret al-Numan, a town near Turkey which rebels captured last month, a watchdog said.

But rebel fighters killed at least 18 soldiers as they overran a military post near Ras al-Ain, a town also on the Turkish border that the armed opposition seized Friday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A day after France became the first Western nation to recognise the newly united opposition, Damascus hit out at the decision and said the Qatar meeting at which the dissident factions united on Sunday amounted to a war declaration.

“The Doha meeting was a declaration of war. These people (the opposition) don’t want to solve the issue peacefully through the mechanisms of the UN,” Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad, told AFP.

Reacting to the French move, Muqdad said: “Allow me to use the word, this is an immoral position. They are supporting killers, terrorists and they are encouraging the destruction of Syria.” Russian PM Medvedev, a strong Damascus ally, also criticised countries siding with the opposition and insisted Moscow was staying neutral.

“We don’t support anybody in this conflict, neither President Assad nor the rebels... but unfortunately, the point of view of some states is more one-sided,” Medvedev told Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Riyadh for talks with his Arab counterparts in the Gulf that are expected to highlight differences on the conflict in Syria. Lavrov began his visit by meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, an AFP correspondent reported.

President Francois Hollande said Paris recognised the coalition as “the sole representative of the Syrian people and thus as the future provisional government of a democratic Syria, allowing an end to the Bashar al-Assad regime”. The question of arming the rebels would now “have to be necessarily reviewed not only in France but in all countries which will recognise this government,” Hollande added.

National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib has called on world powers to arm President Assad’s foes, saying they desperately needed “specialised weapons” in order to “cut short the suffering of the Syrians and their bloodshed”. The United States said the new National Coalition was “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, but stopped short of recognising it as the sole representative.

Britain said it wants to see more evidence the grouping has strong support inside Syria before formally recognising it.

The Arab League stopped short of granting the bloc full recognition, only saying it saw the alliance as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition”. The opposition agreed on Sunday to unify their fighting forces under a military council and to set up a judicial commission for rebel-held areas. They plan to form a provisional government. On the ground, tanks moved on the Yarmuk refugee camp and the neighbouring Damascus district of Tadamum after battles in the area late Tuesday, said the Observatory.

In the northwest province of Idlib, five people were killed as warplanes and tanks pounded the towns of Al-Tah and Maaret al-Numan.

State television reported on Wednesday that rebels on the same highway had confiscated three trucks of Red Crescent humanitarian aid.

Rebels made advances in the northern city of Aleppo on Wednesday, taking the a regime checkpoint at the north of the metropolis before dawn, a witness and security source said.

Meanwhile, 18 soldiers were killed when rebels overran a military post near the northeastern border with Turkey in the mainly Kurdish province of Hasakeh, the Observatory said. The clashes, which also left three rebels killed, came as warplanes bombarded the nearby rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain on the border, an AFP photographer said, adding rebel fighters right next to Turkey fired shots in return.

And on the Iraqi border in the east, fighter jets pounded the town of Albu Kamal, where two rebels were killed in clashes with troops.

The Observatory, which relies on activists, doctors and lawyers for its information, gave an initial toll of 52 people killed nationwide: 11 civilians, 27 soldiers and 14 rebels.