Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Syrian government forces pound rebels around Damascus

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Observers reported fierce clashes and heavy government bombardment Sunday on the outskirts of Damascus as Syrian government forces pressed an offensive aimed at securing the capital and its vulnerable international airport.

Syrian warplanes and artillery pounded rebel-held positions south and east of the capital, opposition spokesmen said, continuing a pattern of heavy strikes that has continued for at least four days.

The government appears intent on creating a security cordon around the capital and along the road to the airport, where flights were interrupted last week because of clashes along the main airport road — which skirts several rebel-dominated districts. The government reportedly brought in troop reinforcements to secure the route to the airport, about 15 miles southeast of downtown Damascus.

The pro-government Al Watan newspaper reported Sunday that the Syrian army "has completely opened the gates of hell before all who would even consider approaching Damascus or planning to attack it."

Losing access to the airport would be a major psychological and strategic blow for the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad, whose territory has steadily eroded.

In recent weeks, rebels have overrun a number of military bases and seized oil wells and a hydroelectric plant. Rebels already control several border crossings into neighboring Turkey and large swaths of territory in northwestern and eastern Syria.

The official state news service reported Sunday that troops killed scores of "al-Qaida terrorists" in Damascus suburbs, including Zamalka and Dariya. The government routinely links rebels to al-Qaida, though opposition commanders insist that brigades linked to al-Qaida represent a small minority of the highly fragmented rebel force.

The recent fighting and bombardment near Damascus appear to be the heaviest in the capital since last summer, when the army cleared opposition fighters from much of the city.

Also on Sunday, government and opposition spokesmen reported that a car bomb exploded in the central city of Homs, killing as many as 15.

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