Middle East

Fighting rages around Damascus: activists

A view of a burnt vehicle and damaged buildings in the Aleppo district of Salaheddine December 5, 2012. Picture taken December 5, 2012. REUTERS/Aref Hretani

BEIRUT: Troops waged fierce assaults on rebel positions around Syria on Thursday, zooming in on the outskirts of Damascus where the regime is determined to regain control, a monitoring group said.

In the capital, security forces swarmed the southern district of Zahra after a car bomb exploded, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying no one was killed, according to its initial information.

However state television reported that "Al-Qaeda terrorists exploded a bomb in a car in front of a Red Crescent centre in Damascus, causing one death and major damage".

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shelled outlying areas of Damascus -- Douma and Zabadani to the northeast and Daraya and Moadamiyet al-Sham in the southwest.

As the army escalated its bid to seize control of rebel-held Daraya, scene in August of the single worst massacre in Syria's 21-month conflict, additional troops were deployed to the town.

"Syrian army units continued today to pursue terrorists loyal to (the radical Islamist) Al-Nusra Front, which is part of Al-Qaeda, in Daraya," according to state news agency SANA.

Citing an unnamed military source, the agency also said "Daraya will be completely cleansed of terrorists soon".

Regime media has frequently announced the army would end the insurgency, though such statements have rarely borne fruit.

"The army is advancing little by little into Daraya, though the (rebel) Free Syrian Army is fighting hard to keep the troops out of the town," an anti-regime activist told AFP over the Internet.

"The army has been able to enter into around 30 percent of Daraya in recent days, and there are serious fears about what would happen to the town if the troops do reclaim it," said the activist, who identified himself as Abu Kinan.

At the same time, there were clashes in the flashpoint town of Irbin to the east, the Observatory said, adding rebels had assaulted a depot for tanks and military vehicles.

"Rebels have seized three military vehicles, and destroyed two others," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Damascus province is now a key battlefield, as regime forces battle to retake control of an eight-kilometre (five-mile) belt around the capital, analysts say.

Elsewhere, rebels fought against soldiers backed by artillery.

In the embattled northern city of Aleppo, several districts saw clashes, while shells slammed into zones in the southern province of Daraa, said the Observatory.

In the town of Sfira in Aleppo province, the Al-Nusra Front seized control of a power station, the watchdog added.

The Observatory said fighting on Wednesday had claimed 104 lives across the country, according to its toll compiled from a network of activists, lawyers and doctors.

The Britain-based watchdog has tallied more than 41,000 deaths, most of them civilians, since the uprising broke out in March 2011.





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