BAB AL-HAWA, Syria/AMMAN - Syrian government forces pounded rebels in
Damascus overnight, battling to reverse opposition gains in the
aftermath of the assassination of President Bashar Assad's security
Army helicopters and tanks aimed rockets, machine guns
and mortars at pockets of rebel fighters who have infiltrated the
capital this week in an operation they call "Damascus Volcano."
Lightly-armed fighters have been moving through the streets on foot and attacking security installations and roadblocks.
But the heart of the city was quiet by 4 a.m. GMT on Saturday, residents told Reuters.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group which monitors
the violence in the country, said 240 people had been killed across
Syria on Friday, including 43 soldiers.
combined death toll over the past 48 hours stands at 550, making it the
bloodiest two days of the 16-month-old uprising against Assad.
Wednesday a bomb killed four members of the president's narrow circle
of kin and lieutenants, including his powerful brother-in-law, defense
minister and intelligence chief.
regime has been rudderless for last three days. But the aerial and
ground bombardment on Damascus and its suburbs shows that it has not
lost the striking force and that it is re-grouping," opposition activist
Moaz al-Jahhar said by phone from Damascus.
In the days since,
rebels have pushed deep into the heart of the capital and seized control
of other towns. On Thursday, they captured three border crossings with
Iraq and Turkey, the first time they have held sway over Syria's
Looting the borders
Bab al-Hawa, a busy border post with Turkey seized by advancing
fighters, rebels watched on with approval while jubilant villagers
looted a duty free shop, part of the vast business empire of one of
"This is the people's money; they are taking it back," said rebel fighter Ismail. "Whoever wants to should take it."
has failed to speak in public since Wednesday's blast. A funeral was
held on Friday for three of the officials slain in the attack, but Assad
did not attend and was nowhere to be seen.
A Damascus resident
said he saw three tanks on the southern ring road late on Friday
evening, firing at districts in west Damascus.
"The road was cut off and troops were firing mortar rounds from next to the tanks," he said.
resident of Mezzeh, a district of high rise towers, villas and cactus
fields, said helicopters were firing machine-guns into the neighborhood
and rebels were firing back "uselessly" with automatic rifles.
man in Barzeh, a neighborhood to the northeast, said a barrage of mortar
rounds began hitting residential buildings before midnight.
Snipers and closed borders
snipers stationed in Ush al-Wawrar, an enclave in hills overlooking
Barzeh populated mainly by members of Assad's Alawite minority sect, had
killed a woman earlier in the day and there was gunfire between the two
districts, he said.
Accounts could not be independently verified. The Syrian government restricts access by international journalists.
at least one apparent success for Assad's forces, state TV said on
Friday troops had cleared the central Damascus district of Midan of
"mercenaries and terrorists." It showed dead men in t-shirts, some
covered in blood, others burned.
Opposition activists and rebel
sources confirmed they had withdrawn from that district after coming
under heavy bombardment, but said they were advancing elsewhere.
"It is a tactical withdrawal. We are still in Damascus," Abu Omar, a rebel commander, said by telephone.
forces shelled the Abu Kamal crossing with Iraq on the Euphrates River
highway, one of the most important trade routes in the Middle East,
seized by rebels on Thursday.
A Reuters photographer at the scene
said Iraqi forces had sealed off their side of the checkpoint with
concrete walls. Late on Friday explosions and gunfire could be heard
from the Syrian side, which had been burned and looted.
in violence has trapped millions of Syrians, turned sections of the
capital into ghost towns, and sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing
to neighboring Lebanon.
The end game?
and world powers are now bracing for what could be the decisive phase
of the conflict, hoping to wrench Assad out of power without unleashing a
sectarian war that could spill across borders.
Israel said it would consider military action
if needed to ensure Syrian missiles or chemical weapons did not reach
Assad's allies in Lebanon, the Shi'ite Islamist movement Hezbollah.
have instructed the military to increase its intelligence preparations
and prepare what is needed so that ... (if necessary) ... we will be
able to consider carrying out an operation," Defense Minister Ehud Barak
Diplomacy has failed to keep pace with events. A day after
Moscow and Beijing vetoed a UN resolution that would have allowed
sanctions, the Security Council approved a 30-day extension of a small,
unarmed observer mission, the only outside military presence on the
"The regime is going through its last days," Abdelbasset
Seida, the leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the
Syrian National Council, said in Rome, predicting a dramatic escalation