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Battle for Syria intensifies

Free Syrian Army fighters are seen in the Al-khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs yesterday.

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces bombarded rebel districts near Damascus today in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around President Bashar al-Assad’s power base.

The fighting around Damascus has led foreign airlines to suspend flights and prompted the United Nations and European Union to reduce their presence in the capital, adding to a sense that the fight is closing in.

The army fight back came a day after the Syrian foreign ministry spokesman was reported to have defected in a potentially embarrassing blow to the government.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 people were killed across Syria on Monday, more than 60 of them around Damascus. Assad’s forces bombarded districts to the south-east of the capital on Tuesday, near to the international airport, and in the rebel bastion of Daraya to the south-west.

In central Damascus, shielded for many months from the full force of a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed, one resident reported hearing several loud explosions.

“I have heard four or five thunderous blows. It could be barrel bombs,” she said, referring to makeshift bombs which activists say Assad’s forces have dropped from helicopters on rebel-dominated areas.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebel forces have made advances in recent weeks, seizing military bases, including some close to Damascus, from forces loyal to Assad, who is from Syria’s Alawite minority linked to Shi’ite Islam.

Faced with creeping rebel gains across the north and east of the country, and the growing challenge around the capital, Assad has increasingly resorted to air strikes against the insurgents.

Amid talk that troops had also moved chemical weapons, US President Barack Obama again warned Assad against using them. (Reuters)

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