Syrian forces strike capital as rebels focus on Aleppo
Syrian forces bombarded three districts of Damascus with helicopter gunships today, witnesses said, clawing back territory from rebels a week after the fighters launched what they called a final battle for the capital.
Fighting also raged around the main intelligence headquarters in Syria's biggest city, Aleppo -the country's main commercial and industrial hub - and in Deir al-Zor on the Euprhates river, the largest city in the east.
Rebels said they had captured a third border crossing with Turkey today, Bab al-Salam north of Aleppo, while Iraqi officials said Syrian forces had regained control of one of two border crossings seized by rebels on the frontier with Iraq.
The helicopter bombardments in Damascus and Deir al-Zor showed Syria president Bashar al-Assad's determination to regain control after a bomb killed four members of his high command in the gravest blow in the 16-month-old revolt.
Rebels were driven from Mezze, the diplomatic district of Damascus, residents and opposition activists said, and elite Fourth Division troops were besieging the northern neighbourhood of Barzeh, one of three northern areas hit by helicopter fire.
The fourth division is run by Dr Assad's younger brother, Maher al-Assad (41) who is widely seen as the muscle maintaining the Assad family's four decades of Alawite minority rule.
His role has become more crucial since Dr Assad's defence and intelligence ministers, a top general and his powerful brother-in-law were killed by the bomb on Wednesday, part of a "Damascus volcano" by rebels seeking to turn the tables in a revolt inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Dr Assad has not spoken in public since the bombing.
Diplomats and opposition sources said government forces were focusing on strategic centres, with one Western diplomat comparing Dr Assad to a doctor "abandoning the patient's limbs to save the organs".
Syrian state television quoted a media source denying that helicopters had fired on the capital.
"The situation in Damascus is normal, but the security forces are pursuing the remnants of the terrorists in some streets," it said.
Dr Assad's forces, who also pushed into a rebel-held district in the northerly commercial hub of Aleppo yesterday, targeted pockets of lightly armed rebels, who moved about the streets on foot and attacked security installations and roadblocks.
Residents said the sound of shelling in the capital was so intense at dusk that they were unable to distinguish it from the traditional cannon blast marking the end of the daily fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Opposition activists said late last night that helicopters had fired rockets into a neighbourhood near the southerly Sayida Zeinab district, causing dozens of casualties.
They did not have any other details.
"In Damascus, people continue to search desperately for safety," the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement in Geneva."
Humanitarian needs are growing as the situation in the city worsens and as large numbers of people flee their neighbourhoods in search of safe haven.
The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have intensified their response to the situation.
"The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors the violence, s aid 180 people, including 48 troops, had been killed across Syria yesterday.
Many of them died in the province of Homs, epicentre of the uprising.