BEIRUT: The Syrian capital Damascus was hit by a power cut late Wednesday, shortly after an explosion near the international airport, residents said.
“A terrorist attack on a gas pipeline that feeds a power station in the south has led to a power outage in the provinces, and work to repair it is in progress,” Electricity Minister Imad Khamis said, quoted by the SANA official news agency.
“The whole city just went dark,” said a resident who lives in the center of the city and did not want to be identified. She said that she could see the “major glow of a fire” near the airport and the sound of heavy machine-gun fire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group that reports on abuses and battlefield developments using sources from both sides of the war, said the explosion was caused by rebel artillery that hit a gas pipeline near the airport. It was not immediately clear why power was cut to the city.
The Observatory said the rebel shelling was aimed at the town of Ghasula, a few kilometers from the airport.
Mainstream and Islamist rebels also pressed an advance against troops in Homs province aimed at capturing major weapons depots and rebels.
Several brigades, among them the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, seized control of army positions “near weapons depots, by Mahin village,” the Observatory added.
Rebels also seized a gas well located outside Sadad, a Christian town near Mahin, the Observatory said, as clashes pitted them against loyalists.
Opposition fighters entered Sadad Monday, aiming to advance through it toward Mahin and the depots.
But the army pushed them back and deployed its troops in Sadad, said the Observatory, which also reported five killed in Wednesday’s clashes there.
The town lies on the road linking Mahin and the rebel-held Qalamoun area in rural Damascus.
In Qalamoun, which lies on the Lebanese border, loyalists have been fighting for months to wrest control from the opposition.Activists said that troops fighting there are backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Referring to Sadad, a rebel commander said: “The regime is responsible for whatever happens to this historic town.” The rebels had entered the town without a fight.
“The police station surrendered without resistance, and there were no clashes until the regime tried to retake the town by force. It used warplanes, artillery, tanks and all kinds of conventional weapons,” said Lieutenant Colonel Oraba Idriss, an army defector.
Many of the town’s residents have fled in the past hours, and as the rebels advanced, the loyalist air force launched a campaign on the area.
Elsewhere, fierce clashes raged in Moadamieh, southwest of Damascus, which has been under siege for nearly a year.
The opposition had called for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to allow assistance to flow into the rebel-held town, while Syria’s army had sealed the few remaining smuggling routes into the besieged eastern suburbs, activists and aid workers said, tightening a choke hold on rebel-held areas near the capital.
In the heart of Damascus, rebels shelled Baramkeh and Umayyad Square, wounding several people, according to the Observatory.
SANA said one of the shells struck near the Sheraton Hotel, and that “the terrorist attack injured two people and caused material damage in the area.”
Umayyad Square is home to several buildings housing government, military, security and cultural facilities.
“We have reports that a shell that struck ... near the Sheraton Hotel in Umayyad Square injured two people ... while reports emerged of five killed and 20 wounded when shells hit Abbasiyin Square and [nearby] Qassaa,” the Observatory said.
Among the dead was a singer of Christian religious songs, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
Several hours later, after the city was plunged into darkness a car bomb hit a checkpoint in a western suburb of Dummar, causing multiple casualties among the troops manning it, the Observatory said.
Separately, the U.N. Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will meet U.S. and Russian officials in Switzerland next month to try to prepare the way for a full Syria peace conference in Geneva, a senior U.S. official said.
The trilateral meeting will be held in Geneva on Nov. 5 with the U.S. delegation expected to include Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, the State Department official told reporters accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry on a visit to Rome.
“We look forward to continuing this trilateral dialogue and reviewing progress toward convening the Geneva Conference on Syria,” the official said.
Damascus said that no foreign party would be involved in deciding the country’s leadership after Arab and Western governments said President Bashar Assad should play no future role.
“The Syrian people are the only ones who can choose their leader, and who can decide on Syria’s present and future,” the Foreign Ministry said.