DAMASCUS: Syrian troops have captured most of a strategic Damascus suburb used by rebels as a base to threaten key regime facilities in the capital, a government official said Saturday.
The announcement that regime forces had taken Daraya came a day after anti-government activists said rebels and Islamic militants seeking to topple President Bashar Assad took full control of Taftanaz air base in the northwest. That dealt a significant blow to government forces, with helicopters, tanks and multiple rocket launchers seized.
The back-to-back declarations highlight the see-saw nature of the conflict in Syria, where one side's victories in one area are often followed by reverses in another.
"The army is battling some small pockets (of rebels) and (Daraya) will be safe within few days," the official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Syrian troops have been battling for weeks to regain Daraya from the hands of anti-government fighters. The suburb, just south of Damascus, is on the edge of the strategic military air base of Mazzeh in a western neighborhood of the capital. It borders the Kfar Sousseh neighborhood that is home to the government headquarters, the General Security intelligence agency head office and the Interior Ministry, which was the target of a recent suicide attack that wounded the interior minister.
The suburb is also less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from the People's Palace - one of three palaces in the capital used by Assad.
Syria's pro-government media had reported that thousands of rebel fighters from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group have holed up in Daraya in preparation to storm Damascus.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and which Washington claims is affiliated with al-Qaida, has been among the most effective fighting force on the rebel side in the battle to oust Assad. Syrian official statements regularly play up the role of Islamist extremists within the rebel movement.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Daraya and other suburbs of the capital were being shelled on Saturday.
The group also said Syrian warplanes were also attacking eastern suburbs of Damascus including Mleiha, as well as the rebel-held town of Rastan near the central city of Homs.
More than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 in Syria's conflict, which has turned into an outright civil war driving hundreds of thousands from their homes and across the borders into neighboring countries.
Shortly after they captured the Taftanaz field in Idlib province, rebels in the neighboring province of Aleppo intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport of the city of Aleppo, which includes a military base. Rebels have been trying to capture the two sites since last week, along with a third airfield known as Kweires.
State-run Syrian TV reported Saturday that the army repelled rebels who attacked Kishek airport in Aleppo and inflicted casualties among the attackers. It gave no further details.
The Observatory reported Saturday that warplanes carried out air raids around the international airport of Aleppo in an attempt to push back the rebels attacking it.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said troops and rebels clashed in the southern town of Busra al-Harir in the Daraa province where the uprising against Assad's regime began nearly two years ago.