Assad ‘resorting to gunships’ as rebellion reaches Syrian capital

Syrian government forces have used helicopter gunships with heavy machine guns to battle rebels in the capital Damascusduring overnight clashes, activists claim.

They said Damascus was relatively quiet yesterday after three days of intense clashes between troops and rebels.

The fighting has been the most sustained and widespread in the capital since the start of the uprising against president Bashar Assad 16 months ago.

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The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said the fighting was concentrated in Kfar Souseh, Nahr Aisha, Midan and Qadam.

Syria’s state-run news agency said yesterday that troops are still chasing “terrorist elements” who fled from Nahr Aisha to Midan. The fierce clashes are the latest sign that Syria’s conflict is fast descending into a civil war that is moving ever closer to the heart of president Bashar Assad’s regime.

Government forces have already thrown tanks and armoured personnel carriers into the fight in the capital, but the use of airpower reflected the intensity and seriousness of the clashes.

Syria’s state-run news agency said troops are still chasing “terrorist elements” who had fled from Nahr Aisha to Midan.

Activists have dubbed the fighting in the capital the “Damascus Volcano”.

The clashes are the most sustained and widespread in the capital since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in March last year and a crackdown that activists say has claimed the lives of more than 17,000 people.

Damascus – and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo – are both home to elites belonging to a branch of the Muslim religion which is in the minority in Syria but has benefited from close ties to Assad’s regime, as well as businessmen who could suffer if Assad falls.

As the violence has spiralled out of control, diplomatic efforts have been blocked by China and Russia who both back Assad.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon called for rapid, unified action by the Security Council on Syria as he arrived in Beijing as part of diplomatic efforts to get Russia and China to back a tougher response.

Mr Ban’s trip comes ahead of a UN Security Council vote on whether to allow sanctions and authorise enforcement that could ultimately include military force.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has visited Bashabsheh refugee camp in Jordan, near the border with Syria, where he met some of the thousands of people who have fled their homes under assault from military forces.

He warned must be no impunity for those committing human rights abuses in Syria, as he announced Britain will be stepping up its support for those documenting the regime’s crimes.

The UK will train and equip an additional 20 Syrian human rights activists to join 47 who were trained earlier this year.

“Today I have seen first-hand the terrible price being paid by the Syrian people and heard harrowing accounts of how they have suffered.

“It is more clear than ever that we must work to ensure that there is no impunity for those committing violations and abuses in Syria,” said Mr Hague.