Syria rebels win support from Britain, battle in Damascus

AMMAN Tue Nov 20, 2012 11:47pm IST

Damaged buildings are seen after an air strike by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces at the Hammouriyeh area in Ghouta east of Damascus November 17, 2012. REUTERS/Omar al-Khani

Damaged buildings are seen after an air strike by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces at the Hammouriyeh area in Ghouta east of Damascus November 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Omar al-Khani

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian government troops backed by tanks battled to oust rebel forces from an opposition stronghold in a Damascus suburb on Tuesday in the heaviest fighting in the capital for months.

In the country's north, rebel fighters stormed an air defence base that President Bashar al-Assad's military had used to bombard areas near the Turkish border.

On the international front, the Turkish foreign minister said NATO states had agreed to supply Turkey with a Patriot missile system to defend against Syrian cross-border shelling.

Although any such deployment would be for defensive purposes only, it nonetheless marked a hardening stance in the foreign effort to remove Assad.

The rebels also received a diplomatic lift with Britain officially recognising the opposition Syrian National Coalition, set up this month to boost their chances of securing foreign aid and arms, as the Syrian people's legitimate representative.

It was the ninth country to do so following France, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states.

After months of slow progress marked by poor organisation and supply problems, the rebels have captured several army positions in outlying regions in the last week, including a Special Forces base near Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub.

They are also trying to take the 20-month-old revolt to the heart of Damascus, Assad's seat of power, and have dubbed this week "March to Damascus Week".

On Tuesday, elite Republican Guard troops attacked the rebel stronghold of Daraya on the city's southwestern edge but met resistance from rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army, opposition sources said.

Seven civilians and three rebels were killed in fighting and bombardments on Daraya, the sources said.

Video footage showed the body of a baby at a hospital. A young couple died from shrapnel when artillery hit the basement of a building in which they were sheltering, activists said.

"The Republican Guards are hitting the town with tanks, artillery and rockets. Most civilians had fled and those who have stayed are trapped with no where to escape," Abu Kinan, an activist in the Daraya, said by phone.

A Western diplomat following the fighting said Assad had to show he could repel the rebel challenge to Damascus.

"He has to show that letting the bases fall in and round Damascus is only temporary while he begins to consolidate resources and personnel and deals with the struggles in the east," the diplomat said.

Also on Tuesday, two mortar rounds hit the Information Ministry building in Damascus, causing damage but no casualties, state televison said. It blamed "terrorists" for the attack, the usual government term for anti-Assad forces.

In total, 100 people were killed in violence on Tuesday, 64 of them civilians, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In the north, opposition sources said rebel fighters had captured sections an air defence base at Sheikh Suleiman, 18 km (11 miles) from the Turkish border and 30 km (20 miles) northwest of Aleppo.

The fighters seized three artillery pieces and large stocks of explosives but would withdraw to avoid retaliatory air strikes, opposition source said.

"Assad's forces use the base to shell many villages and towns in the countryside. It is now neutralised," one said.

MISSILES ON THE BORDER

In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said NATO states had agreed to supply Turkey with an advanced Patriot missile system to defend against Syrian attacks.

Talks on its deployment are in the final stage, he said. Only the United States, the Netherlands have the appropriate system avaialble.

In recent months artillery and mortar fire from Syria has landed inside Turkey, increasing concern that the anti-Assad uprising could turn into a regional conflagration.

Turkey has often scrambled fighter jets along the border in a warning to Damascus as Syrian war planes and helicopters bomb rebel positions just a few kilometres (miles) from Turkish soil.

Dogan news agency reported that two anti-aircraft missiles fired from Syria had struck a vegetable market and a road in the border district of Turkey's Hatay province on Tuesday.

Turkey, Gulf Arab states and Western powers have all called for Assad - whose Alawite family has ruled Sunni Muslim-majority Syria in autocratic fashion for four decades - to relinquish power. Assad counts on the support of long-time ally Russia and Shi'ite Iran.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday that any missile deployment would be a defensive measure and not to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.

Although the rebels have taken large swathes of land, they are almost defenceless against the government's air force. They have called for an internationally enforced no-fly zone, a measure that helped Libyan rebels overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year.

Despite strong censure of Assad, Western powers have shied away from direct military involvement.

But the political campaign against Assad took a step forward on Tuesday when British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that Britain recognised the new opposition coalition as the Syrian people's sole legitimate representative.

The British move goes further than the European Union, which recognised the coalition but not exclusively. Washington has also stopped short of full recognition.

Britain says no option is off the table but Hague told parliament no decision had been taken to supply military aid.

"It's a morale boost. It gives some credibility to the opposition, and it could lay the platform practically for more effective ways of channelling support, plus some quasi-military support," said David Butter, Middle East expert at London-based thinktank Chatham House.

An estimated 38,000 people have been killed in Syria since an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad began in March last year. The initially peaceful protests turned into an armed rebellion after a government crackdown.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman,; Oliver Holmes, Erika Solomon and Dominic Evans in Beirut,; Mohammed Abbas in London, Gulsen Solaker and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by Angus MacSwan)

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