Syrian government jets bombarded the Damascus ring road on Thursday in a bid to halt a rebel advance which threatens President Bashar Assad's hold on the capital, insurgent commanders and opposition activists said.
Warplanes fired rockets at southern parts of the route where rebels have spent the past 36 hours overrunning army positions and road blocks encircling the heart of the city, the site of key state security and intelligence installations.
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Opposition sources said the fighting has spilled over into central Damascus, and the Al-Arabiya network reported of fierce battles in the area. At least 109 people, including 12 women and eight children, were killed throughout Syria on Thursday, many of them in the Damascus area.
The Free Syrian Army announced in the evening that it had seized control of Thalatheen Street, a main Damascus thoroughfare straddling the southern rebel-held district of Hajar al-Aswad. The street is located near the Palestinian refugee camp Al-Yarmouk.
Syrian human rights groups referred to the battles and shelling in the outskirts of Damascus as "the fiercest in months. Meanwhile, Syrian opposition groups have expressed their support for the rebels' "campaign to liberate Damascus."
The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that army forces loyal to Assad "pursued armed terrorist groups" in Damascus' suburbs. SANA reporter quoted an official source as saying that the army destroyed hideouts of "terrorists" in Erbin and Zamalka and killed scores of them.
The source added that an army unit destroyed a 23-mm antiaircraft gun and a vehicle with all "terrorists" inside it on the road to Adraa al-Balad.
Other army units pursued "terrorist groups" in Daraya city, Hejjeira, al-Dhiyabiyeh, al-Sbeineh and al-Hajar al-Aswad, killing and injuring many of their members, SANA reported.
Assad, battling to crush a 22-month-old revolt in which 60,000 people have died, has lost control of large parts of the country but his forces, backed by air power, have so far kept rebels away from the centre of Damascus.
World powers fear the conflict - the longest and deadliest of the uprisings that started spreading through the Arab world two years ago - could envelop Syria's neighbors, further destabilizing an already explosive region.
"The regime really wants its positions on the ring road back. It is a major defense line for the capital," Aby Ghazi, a rebel commander based in the eastern suburb of Irbreen told Reuters.
Ghazi said the rebels have reached the edges of the city's main Abbaside Square where the Syrian military had turned a football stadium into barracks.
Authorities have banned most independent media from the country, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
Units of Assad's elite Republican Guard based on the imposing Qasioun Mountain overlooking the capital fired artillery rounds and rockets at Jobar, an eastern neighborhood bordering the square, and at the ring road, rebel and activist sources said.
Rebel in Damascus neighborhood (Photo: Reuters)
Damascus residents, long accustomed to the sounds of war, said Thursday's shelling was some of the heaviest they had heard.
"They've gone insane. All of them. They're insane," one central Damascus resident said by telephone.
Shelling of Jobar neighborhood (Photo: Reuters)
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Assad government had responded to the rebel offensive by "indiscriminately shelling unarmed civilians".
"This violates every tenet of international law, and we call for the perpetrators to be held accountable," she said.
Neither side has gained a clear military advantage in the civil war pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against security forces dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Assad has framed the revolt as a foreign-backed conspiracy and blames the West and Sunni Gulf states.
State media said on Thursday the army had pushed back rebels from Jobar and other eastern districts.
It added six people, including a woman and three children, were killed by rebel mortar fire on a bus station in the north-eastern district of al-Qaboun on Thursday, with several other people seriously wounded.
But Fidaa Mohammad, an activist in the district, said those killed were members of the 'popular committees', a militia set up by the ruling Baath Party's intelligence apparatus to help Assad maintain his grip on the capital.
Activists said 46 people had died on Thursday, mostly from heavy army bombardment on the contested neighborhoods of Jobar and Zamalka which are near compounds housing Alawite forces.
A retired military officer in Damascus said the shelling of rebel areas was hitting civilians and fighters indiscriminately.
The army "stand hundreds of meters away and fire shells. And the shells fall on anyone. Women and families and anybody. Where is the courage in that," he added.
One rebel commander told Reuters the insurgents were not trying to take the capital with the current push.
"The objective is to take out the sniper positions and fortifications that form part of the regime's defense line on Damascus, not to advance too quickly without having the proper support," said Captain Islam Alloush of the Liwa al-Islam rebel unit.
Another opposition activist in Damascus said the offensive was being led by Sunni officers who had defected from the army and wanted to cut Assad's command and control lines from the centre of the city to its outskirts.
The rebels are using anti-aircraft guns, mortar rounds and armored vehicles captured from Assad's forces over the past few months, according to opposition sources.
Many parents took their children out of Damascus schools early on Thursday and the acrid, stinging smell of explosives hung in the air, forcing some people to keep their windows closed.
Video footage, that could not be verified independently showed rebels inspecting several bodies identified as government soldiers and pro-Assad militiamen killed in fighting on Thalatheen Street.
The rundown area, home to tens of thousands of refugees from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, is close to the southern entrance of the capital and the main highway to the city of Deraa and the Jordanian border.