Syrian troops seize Damascus neighborhood

By{}ALBERT AJI and ZEINA KARAM{}Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syrian troops regained control of a rebellious neighborhood in Damascus Friday as more than 300 people were reported killed the day before in a sharp escalation of the country's civil war.

Fighting has intensified over the past week as rebels closed in on the capital and launched their most serious blow yet on Assad's inner circle, killing top aides in a bomb blast Wednesday as they attended a security meeting.

National security chief and close Assad adviser, Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, died Friday of wounds suffered in the bombing, the fourth member of Assad's inner circle to die in the blast, according to state-run TV.

State-run TV also said Friday that government troops were fully in control of the rebellious Midan neighborhood on the southern edge of Damasacus, where fighting has raged for days.

The fighting in Midan and several other districts has turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighboring Lebanon.

"Our heroic forces have completely cleansed the Midan area from the terrorist mercenaries," the TV said, employing the term used by authorities to refer to rebels. It said authorities seized large quantities of weapons including machine guns, explosive belts, rocket-propelled grenades and communications equipment.

Damascus activist Khaled al-Shami, contacted via Skype, said rebels carried out a "tactical" retreat early Friday to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces.

Eager to show that authorities were in control, the government took local journalists for a trip to Midan inside two armored personal carriers Friday.

An Associated Press reporter on the trip saw scenes of destruction, including dozens of damaged or charred cars, stores with shattered windows, and the corpses of at least six young men on the street. One of them, near the Saeed Bin Zeid Mosque, appeared to have been shot in the chest. "The Mosque of the Free," was written in red graffiti on the mosque's outer wall.

Garbage littered the streets, shops were closed and the streets were almost deserted.

The violence in heavily guarded Damascus, seat of Assad's power, pointed to an unraveling of his grip on power amid an uprising that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring but became increasingly militarized as the opposition took up arms.

Even though Assad's powerful military remains mostly loyal - suggesting a total collapse may not be imminent - the rebels appeared to be making startling gains in recent weeks.

Activists reported that 310 people were killed in violence nationwide Thursday, making it the single deadliest day of fighting since the revolt began.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll included at least 93 government troops. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees said 217 civilians were killed Thursday.

The figures could not be independently verified because of severe restrictions on journalists in Syria.

Besides the fighting in Damascus, about a half-dozen rebels took over a Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim on Thursday, said Iraqi army Brig. General Qassim al-Dulaimi. There are four major border posts with Iraq.

Rebels overtook a Syrian army outpost near the Syrian-Iraq border after clashes that killed 21 Syrian soldiers, he added.

In addition, amateur video posted online showed rebels taking over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stomped on portraits of Assad. The Associated Press could not independently verify the video because the government bars most media from working independently in the country.

A Turkish official based in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the border gate of Bab al-Hawa, confirmed that the rebels had taken control of the frontier crossing, but had no information on the latest situation over on the Syrian side.

Another official said Turkey has temporarily closed the border gate "for security reasons." Both spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules that bar civil servants from speaking to journalists without authorization.


Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara.

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