WRAPUP 2-Syrian rebels take airbase in slow progress toward Damascus

Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Reuters Middle East

* Rebels say capture helicopter base east of capital

* Second military base on outskirts to fall this month

* Diplomat says Assad still has upper hand

AMMAN, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said on Sunday they

had captured a helicopter base east of Damascus after an

overnight assault, their latest gain in a costly battle to

unseat President Bashar al-Assad that is drawing nearer to his

seat of power.

The Marj al-Sultan base, 15 km (10 miles) from the capital,

is the second military facility on the outskirts of the city

reported to have fallen to Assad's opponents this month.

Activists said rebels had destroyed two helicopters and

taken 15 prisoners.

"We are coming for you Bashar," a rebel shouted in an

internet video of what activists said was Marj al-Sultan.

Restrictions on non-state media meant it could not be verified.

The rebels have been tightening their hold on farmland and

urban centres to the east and northeast of Damascus while a

major battle has been underway for a week in the suburb of

Daraya near the main highway south.

"We are seeing the starting signs of a rebel siege of

Damascus," veteran opposition campaigner Fawaz Tello said from

Berlin. "Marj al-Sultan is very near to the Damascus Airport

road and to the airport itself. The rebels appear to be heading

toward cutting this as well as the main northern artery to


Assad's core forces, drawn mainly from his minority Alawite

sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated power in

Syria for nearly five decades, are entrenched in the capital.

They also have devastating air superiority although they

have failed to prevent rebels increasing their presence on the

edge of the capital and in neighbourhoods on the periphery.

A Syrian government air strike on the rebel-held village of

Deir al-Asafir, 12 km (8 miles) east of Damascus, killed 10

children on Sunday, opposition activists said.

Internet video footage also showed residents collecting

young bodies hit by shrapnel. A sobbing woman picked up the

lifeless body of a girl, while the bodies of two boys were shown

in the back seat of a car.

"None of those killed were older than 15 years old. There

are two women among 15 people wounded," said Abu Kassem, an

activist in the village told Reuters.

A Western diplomat following the fighting said Assad still

had the upper hand. "The army will allow positions to fall here

and there, but it can still easily muster the strength to drive

back the rebels where it sees a danger," the diplomat said.

"The rebels are very short of international support and they

do not have the supplies to keep up a sustained fight,

especially in Damascus."


Iran said Turkey's request to NATO to deploy Patriot

defensive missiles near its border with Syria would add to

problems in the region, where Iran is pitted against mostly

Sunni Turkey and Gulf Sunni powers.

Iran's Shi'ite rulers have stepped up support for Assad

while Sunni Arab powers helped forge a new opposition coalition

this month recognised by France and Britain as the sole

representative of the Syrians.

Syria has called the missile request "provocative", seeing

it as a first step toward a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace

which the opposition is seeking to help them hold territory

against an enemy with overwhelming firepower from the air.

Most foreign powers are reluctant to go that far.

NATO has said the possible deployment of the missiles was

purely defensive. The U.S.-led Western alliance has had some

talks on the request but has yet to take a decision.

Turkey fears security on its border may crumble as the

Syrian army fights harder against the rebels, some of whom have

enjoyed sanctuary in Turkey in their 20-month-old revolt against

Assad's rule.

Ankara has scrambled fighter jets and returned fire after

stray Syrian shells and mortar bombs from heavy fighting along

the border landed in its territory.

More than 120,000 Syrian refugees are sheltering in camps in

southern Turkey and more are expected with winter setting in and

millions of people estimated to be short of food inside Syria.

Abu Mussab, a rebel operative in the area of Hajar al-Aswad

in south Damascus, said the opposition fighters had given up

expecting a no-fly zone. "The bet is now on better organisation

and tactics," he said.

The video said by activists to have been filmed at the Marj

al-Sultan base showed rebel fighters carrying AK-47 rifles.

An anti-aircraft gun was positioned on top of an empty

bunker and a rebel commander from the Ansar al-Islam, a major

Muslim rebel unit, was shown next to a helicopter.

"With God's help, the Marj al-Sultan airbase in eastern

Ghouta has been liberated," the commander said in the video.

Eastern Ghouta, a mix of agricultural land and built-up urban

areas, has been a rebel stronghold for months.

Damaged mobile radar stations could be seen on hilltops,

with rebels waiving as they walked around the compound.

Footage from Saturday evening showed rebels firing

rocket-propelled grenades at the base, and what appeared to be a

helicopter engulfed in flames.

Last week rebels briefly captured an air defence base near

the southern Damascus district of Hajar al-Aswad, seizing

weapons and equipment before pulling out to avoid retaliation

from Assad's air force.

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