REFILE-WRAPUP 3-Syrian forces pound Damascus suburbs, flights to resume

Erika Solomon
Reuters Middle East

* Army, rebels struggling for advantage in Syrian capital

* EgyptAir says resuming flights to Damascus

* Western intelligence says Assad gets arms through airport

BEIRUT, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Syrian forces pounded rebel-held

suburbs around Damascus with fighter jets and rockets on Sunday,

opposition activists said, killing and wounding dozens in an

offensive to push rebels away from the airport and stop them

closing in on the capital.

The army struck hard after a week of rebel advances,

including the capture of two military bases near the capital.

Rebels had been planning to push into central Damascus from

their strongholds on the outskirts and fighting in the past week

has been fierce.

Activists said heavy rocket fire struck towns close to the

Damascus airport road, where rebels and the army had been locked

in three days of clashes. Some described constant shelling,

similar to carpet bombing, in towns like Beit Saham.

"It was frightening because it was the first time we heard

continuous shelling. Really powerful explosions, one after the

other, were shaking the area. I could see fire coming up from

the town," said Samir al-Shami, from the opposition's Syrian

Youth Union, speaking by Skype.

"This was the worst day in those people's lives."

In a sign the government had regained some control over the

airport, EgyptAir said it was resuming flights to Damascus and

the northern city of Aleppo on Monday after a three-day halt in

which Damascus airport was effectively closed due to unrest. The

airline's head said conditions were stable.

No comment was immediately available from Emirates Airline,

which had also suspended its flights indefinitely.

The army's assaults appear to have staved off a rebel

advance into central Damascus so far. But neither side has

gained ground in recent days, and fighting continued along the

outskirts of the city despite heavy shelling by Syrian President

Bashar al-Assad's forces.

But rebels said the area around Damascus airport was not

secure, with clashes still erupting along the road. It is

difficult to verify opposition reports because the government

restricts media access into Syria.

Other activists said the road was in army hands but the area

was still unstable due to fighting in nearby towns like Beit

Saham, about 1 kilometre away.

"No one controls that road. The army has tanks along the

road, but the whole area is exposed to rebel attacks and they

could fire on it any time," said one, asking not to be named.


Rocket attacks on Sunday killed at least 10 in the town of

Deir al-Asafir, 12 km east of Damascus, activists said. Video

published by activists from the town showed at least five

bodies, one of them a young boy and one an elderly man. The

other bodies were wrapped in blood-spattered white sheets.

Syrian security officials and diplomatic sources say the

army's goal is to push rebels back and seal off central Damascus

from the surrounding suburbs where the opposition is dominant.

Rebels say they want to control the airport because the army

has used it to bring in weapons. Western intelligence reports

earlier this year said that Iran, Assad's main backer, had been

using civilian aircraft to fly military equipment and personnel

through Iraqi airspace into Syria.

U.S. officials say the arms flow into Syria has continued

due to Iraqi reluctance to check flights, according to a New

York Times article. It said only two inspections had occurred

since Iraq agreed to a U.S. request in September and that Iran

may have been tipped off about the searches.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters in

Baghdad on Sunday there was no such request.

"There is no ability to inspect all planes destined to Syria

and there was no U.S. request to inspect all aircrafts because

they know that this is not possible," he said.

Lebanese troops clashed with Syrian rebels on the border

between the two countries on Sunday in what a security source

called the first such incident between Lebanon's army and the


The clash occurred when a Lebanese border patrol spotted the

rebel fighters along the border and the rebels opened fire to

prevent the patrol from approaching, said a Lebanese military

source. He said there were no casualties.


In Syria's central city of Homs, a car bomb killed at least

15 people and wounded 24 on Sunday, Syria's state news agency

SANA said. It said the blast in the city's Hamra district also

damaged many nearby residential buildings. The government and

the opposition traded blame for the blast.

There has been a rise in the number of car bombs around the

country. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,

which has a network of activists across Syria, reported four car

bombs on Saturday.

The group gave a preliminary death toll for Sunday's

fighting of 140.

Violence has risen in Syria particularly since rebels began

to contest Assad's control around the capital and Aleppo,

Syria's largest city, but foreign powers remain deadlocked.

Western countries support the opposition but Russia, Syria's

main arms supplier, and China have blocked three U.N. Security

Council resolutions condemning Assad and reject sanctions.

Assad, whose family has ruled Syria autocratically for four

decades, says he is fighting off radical Islamist militants

funded by the West and Gulf Arab countries.

State television on Sunday said the army was "eliminating al

Qaeda terrorists" in the rebel stronghold of Daraya, a suburb on

the southern outskirts of Damascus from which mortar shells have

been fired into the capital.

Rebel spokesman Abu Nidal said the army had entered one side

of the suburb but that the rebels were still in control of the

rest of the area.

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