Syrian rebels battle Assad forces
Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus today, restricting access to its international airport, and the Dubai-based Emirates airline suspended flights to the Syrian capital.
A rebel fighter who identified himself as Abu Omar, a member of the Jund Allah brigade, told Reuters that insurgents fired mortars at the airport's runways and were blocking the road linking it with the capital.
He said insurgents were not inside the airport but were able to block access to and from it.
Another source in a Damascus rebel unit said mortars had been used in clashes near the airport but did not know whether rebels had fired mortars directly at the airport.
Their accounts could not be immediately verified because of severe restrictions on media access to Syria.
Two Austrian soldiers in a UN peacekeeping force deployed in the Golan Heights, disputed by Syria and Israel, were wounded when their convoy came under fire near the Damascus airport, the defence ministry said in Vienna.
An official at EgyptAir said it had cancelled its Friday flight to Damascus due to the "deteriorating situation" around the airport. He said the airline would hold an urgent meeting in the next few hours with Egyptian officials to discuss halting all flights between Egypt and Syria.
Residents also reported Internet connections in the capital were down and mobile and land telephone lines working only sporadically in what appeared to be the worst disruption to communications in Syria since an uprising began 20 months ago.
Syria's minister of information said that "terrorists", not the state, were responsible for a countrywide Internet outage on Thursday, a pro-government TV station said.
"It is not true that the state cut the Internet. The terrorists targeted the Internet lines, resulting in some regions being cut off," he was quoted by al-Ikhbariya as saying.
State TV quoted the telecommunications minister as saying that engineers were working to repair what he said was a fault in the main communications and Internet cable.
The past two weeks have seen rebels overrunning army bases across Syria, exposing Dr Assad's loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power that he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.
Rebels and activists said the fighting along the road to Damascus airport, southeast of the capital, was heavier in that area than at any other time in the conflict.
"No one can come in or out of the airport," said Abu Omar.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a opposition monitoring group, said clashes were particularly intense in Babbila, a suburb bordering the insurgent stronghold of Tadamon.
Nabeel al-Ameer, a spokesman for the rebel Military Council in Damascus, said that a large number of army reinforcements had arrived along the road after three days of scattered clashes ending with rebels seizing side streets to the north of it.
"There are no clashes directly around the airport; the fighting is about 3 or 4 kilometres away," he said earlier via Skype, adding that rebels had taken control of many secondary roads and were expected to advance towards the airport.