Rivals in fierce battle for Damascus

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 Syrian army forces pounded rebel-held suburbs around Damascus with fighter jets and rockets Sunday, activists said, killing and wounding dozens in an offensive to push rebels away from the airport and stop them closing in on the capital.

Shell fire from Syria, meanwhile, hit a Turkish border town late Saturday in the first cross-border shelling since Ankara requested that NATO deploy Patriot air defense missiles on the restive frontier.

The army is striking hard in the capital after a week of rebel advances, including the capture of two military bases close to Damascus. Rebels had been planning to push into central Damascus from their strongholds on the outskirts and fighting in the past week has been fierce.

Activists said heavy rocket fire struck towns close to the Damascus airport highway, where rebels and the army were locked in three days of clashes. Some described constant shelling, similar to carpet bombing, in towns like Beit Saham.

“It was frightening because it was the first time we heard continuous shelling. Really powerful explosions, one after the other, were shaking the area,” said Samir al-Shami, from the opposition’s Syrian Youth Union, speaking on Skype. “This was the worst day in those people’s lives.”

Telecommunications and Internet, which had been cut since Thursday, were restored by Saturday.

In a sign the regime had regained some control over the airport, EgyptAir said it was resuming flights to Damascus and Aleppo Monday after a three-day halt in which Damascus airport was effectively closed due to unrest.

The army’s assaults appear to have staved off a rebel advance into central Damascus so far. But neither side has gained ground in recent days, and fighting continued along the outskirts of the city despite heavy shelling by Assad’s forces.

But rebels said the area around Damascus airport was not secure, with clashes still erupting along the highway.

Other activists said the highway was in army hands but the area was still unstable due to fighting in nearby towns like Beit Saham, about 1 kilometer away.

Syrian security officials and diplomatic sources say the army’s goal is to push rebels back and seal off central Damascus from the surrounding suburbs where the opposition is dominant.

Rocket attacks Sunday killed at least 10 in the town of Deir al-Asafir, 12 km east of Damascus, activists said.

Rebels also said the army entered part of Daraya, where fighters have launched mortars into the capital.

Rebels say they want to control the airport because the army has used it to bring in weapons. Western intelligence reports earlier this year said that Iran had been using civilian aircraft to fly military equipment and personnel through Iraqi airspace into Syria.American officials say the arms flow into Syria has continued due to Iraqi reluctance to check flights, according to a New York Times article. It said only two inspections had occurred since Iraq agreed to a U.S. request in September and that Iran may have been tipped off about the searches.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters in a news conference in Baghdad that there was no such request. “There is no ability to inspect all planes destined to Syria and there was no U.S. request to inspect all aircraft because they know that this is not possible,” he said Sunday.

In Syria’s central city of Homs, a car bomb killed at least 15 people and wounded 24 Sunday, Syria’s state news agency SANA said. Activists said the blast occurred in the city’s Al-Mal’ab district, where many of the city’s displaced after months of intense fighting are taking refuge. The government and the opposition traded blame for the blast.

The Observatory gave a preliminary death toll of 140 for Sunday’s fighting, including about 39 in the Damascus suburbs.

Violence has risen in Syria particularly since rebels began to contest Assad’s control around the capital and Syria’s largest city Aleppo, but foreign powers remain deadlocked. Western countries support the opposition but Russia, Syria’s main arms supplier, and China have blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad and reject sanctions.

On the Turkish border, tensions flared for the first time since Ankara asked its NATO allies for the deployment of Patriot missiles last month in the wake of a series of cross-border fire incidents. Shells fired from Syria hit the Turkish border town of Reyhanli late Saturday amid clashes between Assad’s troops and rebels around the nearby Bab al-Hawa border post, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported. They caused no casualties, it said.

Damascus has reacted furiously to Ankara’s appeal to NATO, accusing it of bringing the violence upon itself by giving shelter to the rebels and funneling arms deliveries from Gulf Arab states.

NATO foreign ministers meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Brussels are expected to signal support for Turkey by giving the go-ahead to deploy the missiles, diplomatic sources in Brussels said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to discuss Syria during a two-day annual visit to Turkey beginning Monday for talks on energy supply.

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