Troops retake rebel Damascus area
Syrian troops have regained control of a rebellious neighbourhood in Damascus as more than 300 people were reported killed yesterday in a sharp escalation of the country's civil war.
Fighting has intensified over the past week as rebels closed in on the capital and launched their most serious blow yet on president Bashar Assad's inner circle, killing top aides in a bomb blast on Wednesday as they attended a security meeting.
National security chief and close Assad adviser, Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, died today of wounds suffered in the bombing, the fourth member of Mr Assad's inner circle to die in the blast, according to state-run TV.
TV also said government troops were fully in control of the rebellious Midan neighbourhood on the southern edge of Damascus, where fighting has raged for days.
The fighting in Midan and several other districts has turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighbouring Lebanon.
TV said authorities seized large quantities of weapons including machine guns, explosive belts, rocket-propelled grenades and communications equipment.
Damascus activist Khaled al-Shami, contacted via Skype, said rebels carried out a "tactical" retreat early today to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces.
Eager to show that authorities were in control, the government took local journalists for a trip to Midan inside two armoured personal carriers.
An Associated Press reporter saw scenes of destruction, including dozens of damaged or charred cars, stores with shattered windows, and the corpses of at least six young men on the street. One of them, near the Saeed Bin Zeid Mosque, appeared to have been shot in the chest. "The Mosque of the Free," was written in red graffiti on the mosque's outer wall.
Rubbish littered the streets, shops were closed and the streets were almost deserted.
The violence in heavily guarded Damascus, seat of Mr Assad's power, pointed to an unravelling of his grip on power amid an uprising that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring but became increasingly militarised as the opposition took up arms.
Even though Mr Assad's powerful military remains mostly loyal - suggesting a total collapse may not be imminent - the rebels appeared to be making startling gains in recent weeks.
Activists reported that 310 people were killed in violence nationwide yesterday, making it the single deadliest day of fighting since the revolt began.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll included at least 93 government troops. Another activist group, the Local Co-ordination Committees said 217 civilians were killed yesterday.
The figures could not be independently verified.
Besides the fighting in Damascus, about a half-dozen rebels took over a Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim yesterday, said the Iraqi army.
In addition, amateur video posted online showed rebels taking over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stamped on portraits of Mr Assad.