Thousands flee Syria as fighting rages

Refugees flooded across Syria's borders and U.N. officials said they had heard banks in Damascus had run out of cash

Thousands flee Syria as fighting rages

World Bulletin/News Desk

Syrian troops fought on the corpse-strewn streets of the capital and at far-flung border posts to reverse gains by rebels, who have advanced relentlessly in the 48 hours since much of President Bashar al-Assad's entourage was assassinated.

Assad's intelligence chief died on Friday of wounds sustained in Wednesday's bomb attack, becoming the fourth member of his narrow circle of kin and lieutenants to be killed by a blast that has transformed the 16-month conflict.

Since then, 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 frontiers.

Assad has failed to speak in public since Wednesday, adding to the sense that one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East is being torn from the grasp of his family, which has ruled it as a personal fiefdom for more than four decades.

The next few days will be critical in determining whether Assad's government can recover from the bombing, which wiped out much of his command structure in a single blow and destroyed his clan's aura of invulnerability.

Regional and world powers are now bracing for the last phase of the conflict, hoping to shoehorn Assad out of power without unleashing a sectarian war that could spill across borders in one of the most volatile parts of the world.

A Western diplomat said it was understood that the Syrian leader had phoned the head of a U.N. observer mission after Wednesday's blast, saying he would accept an international peace plan if the West forced the opposition to halt attacks. The mission head, General Robert Mood, was not available to comment.

Diplomacy has failed to keep pace with events. A day after Moscow and Beijing vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have allowed sanctions, the Security Council approved a 30-day extension of Mood's small, unarmed mission, the only outside military presence on the ground.

In at least one apparent success for Assad's forces, state television said troops had cleared the central Damascus district of Midan of "mercenaries and terrorists". It aired footage of dead men in t-shirts, some covered in blood, others burned.

Opposition activists and rebel sources confirmed on Friday that 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.

One resident of a Palestinian refugee camp in the south of the city said the area nearby had a stench of corpses.

He said: "Tens of cars are burned, I saw at least eight bodies in the streets and people are trying to cover them with blankets. There is a stench (of bodies)."

Assad's forces also tried to recapture the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Syria and shelled the Abu Kamal crossing with Iraq on the Euphrates River highway, among the most important trade routes in the Middle East. The rebels said they still held the crossings, which they captured on Thursday.

A Reuters photographer at the scene said Iraqi forces had sealed off their side of the checkpoint with concrete walls.

The Syrian side had been burned and looted and a senior Iraqi interior ministry official said it appeared to be in rebel hands. Iraqi officers said it was quiet after clashes overnight.

The surge in violence has trapped millions of Syrians, turned sections of the capital into ghost towns, and sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Lebanon. The U.N. refugee agency said it had heard banks had run out of cash.

Funeral

State television said a funeral ceremony was held on Friday for Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat - one of the most powerful men in his circle - as well as for Defence Minister Daoud Rajha and for another senior general killed in Wednesday's bombing.

Intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar also died on Friday of wounds sustained in the blast - the interior minister is still recovering from the attack, which hit a meeting of Assad's closest security advisors inside an intelligence headquarters building in Damascus.

State television did not say whether Assad had attended Friday's funeral at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on a mountain overlooking Damascus. Al-Manar television, owned by Lebanon's Hezbollah Shi'ite militia which is closely allied to the Assads, said Bashar's younger brother Maher attended, but he was not visible in pictures of the event released by the government.

The rebels, who struggled for months against government assaults on their strongholds across Syria, appear to favour small, high impact attacks in the capital, with residents reporting blasts near the landmark Assad Library.

Rebels torched and looted the Damascus Province Police headquarters on Thursday in the centre of the old town.

A witness said a barracks used by the shabbiha, the pro-Assad militia, was ablaze on Friday after a two-day siege.

"The Saiqa (thunderbolt) barracks is now on fire. About 80 shabbiha and army who have been defending it have withdrawn," Abu Ilizz, a resident of the district adjacent to the Council of Ministers building, said by telephone.

"Fortress Damascus" in turmoil

It was the sixth day of clashes in the ancient city, an offensive the rebels are calling "Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake". The Syrian government also says this will be the decisive battle.

"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 in violence.

Residents in central Damascus said shops were closed, roads were empty and only a handful of people were outside. The normally heavy traffic of the cramped Middle Eastern city was gone; only a few cars were moving along its boulevards.

Power in many parts of the city had been cut as temperatures rose to above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

"We have heard reports that many of the banks have just run out of money," Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR, told a briefing in Geneva.

Up to 30,000 Syrian refugees may have crossed into Lebanon in the past 48 hours to escape the fighting, she said. There were also growing numbers fleeing to Iraq and people pouring into Jordan and Turkey.

Residents reported a lack of government checkpoints in the heart of the city and fewer guards in front of the Interior Ministry, which some of them interpreted as signs that government forces were either stretched thin or melting away.

Another Syrian general fled to Turkey overnight, along with four colonels and 17 lower-ranking officers, a Turkish official said, bringing the number of generals sheltering there to 22.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles reports from activists, said 310 Syrians, including 98 security personnel, were killed on Thursday, the highest daily death toll so far. The reports could not be confirmed.

Last Mod: 21 Temmuz 2012, 10:53
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