Assad forces retake rebel area after bloody battle

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Syrian troops regained control of a rebellious neighbourhood in Damascus as more than 300 people were reported killed in a sharp escalation of the civil war.

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

National security chief and close Assad adviser, Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, died yesterday of wounds suffered in the bombing, the fourth member of Mr Assad’s inner circle to die in the blast.

State TV also said government troops were in control of the rebellious Midan district of Damascus, after days of fierce fighting.

Parts of Damascus have become combat zones and thousands of Syrian families have fled into neighbouring Lebanon.

TV 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 to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes.

Eager to show that authorities were in control, the government took local journalists for a trip to Midan.

Reporters saw 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.

The violence in heavily guarded Damascus pointed to an unravelling of Assad’s grip on power amid an uprising that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring.

The rebels appeared to be making startling gains in recent weeks.

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