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 and EgyptAir stopped 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
tight restrictions on media access to Syria.
Two Austrian soldiers in a U.N. 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.
Emirates said it was suspending daily flights to Damascus
"until further notice".
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 with Egyptian officials to discuss halting all
flights to Syria.
An EgyptAir flight that left at 1:30 p.m. (1130 GMT) landed
in Damascus on schedule but the pilot was instructed to take
off straight back to Egypt, airport sources in Cairo said.
Other airlines continued operations.
Residents said the Internet in Damascus crashed in the early
afternoon and mobile and land telephone lines were
functioning only intermittently. It appeared to be the worst
disruption to communications since the Syrian uprising began
20 months ago.
A blog post on Renesys, a U.S. company which tracks Internet
traffic worldwide, said that at 12:26 p.m. in Damascus,
Syria's international Internet connectivity shut down
Syria's minister of information said "terrorists " were
responsible, a pro-government TV station said.
The past two weeks have seen rebels overrunning army bases
across Syria, exposing 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
Nabeel al-Ameer, a spokesman for the rebel Military Council
in Damascus, said 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
He said he hoped the proximity of the rebels to the airport
would dissuade authorities from using it to import military
equipment, but the priority now was to block the road.
There are several military airports around Damascus that are
still under government control.
A Syrian security source told Reuters on condition of
anonymity that the army had started a "cleansing operation"
in the capital to confront rebel advances.
Elsewhere in Damascus, warplanes bombed Kafr Souseh and
Daraya, two neighbourhoods that fringe the centre of the city
where rebels have managed to hide out and ambush army units,
according to opposition activists.
A senior European Union official said that Assad appeared to
be preparing for a military showdown around Damascus,
possibly by isolating the city with a network of checkpoints.
"The rebels are gaining ground but it is still rather slow.
We are not witnessing the last days yet," the official said
on condition of anonymity.
"On the outskirts of Damascus, there are mortars and more
attacks. The regime is thinking of protecting itself ... with
checkpoints in the next few days ... (It) seems the regime is
preparing for major battle on Damascus."
The Syrian security source, who is from the elite 4th
Armoured Division, said one of the aims of the army's
operation was to completely cut off the suburbs - where
rebels are in control - from the city centre.
In the north of the country, rebel units launched an
offensive to seize an army base close to the main north-south
highway that would allow them to block troop movements and
cut Assad's main supply route to Aleppo, Syria's biggest
The Observatory said that rebel units from around Idlib
province massed early on Thursday morning to attack Wadi
al-Deif, a base east of the rebel-held town of Maarat
Wadi al-Deif has been a thorn in the side of rebel units who
first besieged the station in October but met fierce
resistance from government forces, backed up by air strikes.
Assad is fighting an insurgency that grew out of peaceful
demonstrations for democratic reform but escalated, after a
military crackdown on protesters, into a civil war in which
40,000 people have been killed.
WARY BIG POWERS
Most foreign powers have condemned Assad but stopped short of
arming rebel fighters as they fear heavy weapons could make
their way into the hands of radical Islamist units, who have
grown increasingly prominent in the insurgency.
Rebels decry their supporters for not providing them with
surface-to-air missiles that they say they need to counter
the air force. But recent looting of anti-aircraft missiles
from army bases has allowed them to shoot down helicopters
"So far, there is no evidence that any of the surface-to-air
missiles used to date have come from outside Syria," said
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
"The limited number of surface-to-air missiles that have
shown up all appear to have come from Syrian military stock
captured by the armed opposition."
He said the number of these missiles in rebel hands was
probably over 20 but that will rise significantly as rebels
are capturing military bases on an almost-daily basis.
The relatively small number of anti-aircraft missiles looted
so far means that many rebel-controlled areas of the country
remain vulnerable to air strikes. The Observatory said 15
citizens, including children and women, were killed during a
bombing in Aleppo's Ansari district on Thursday.
Activist video footage showed the bodies of at least four
children, wrapped in red blankets and apparently wearing
pyjamas. Another video showed the immediate aftermath of the
attack, with the bodies of children in the street and covered
in cement dust. Half of one young boy's head was missing.