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BRUSSELS/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels said on Wednesday they had surrounded an air base near Damascus, a fresh sign of battle closing in on the Syrian capital a day after NATO drew a line in the sand by agreeing to send air defence missiles to Turkey.
The Western military alliance's decision to send U.S., German and Dutch Patriot missile batteries to help defend the Turkish border would bring European and U.S. troops to Syria's frontier for the first time in the 20 month civil war.
Heavier fighting erupted around Damascus a week ago, bringing a war that had previously been fought mainly in the provinces to the heart of Assad's rule. Fighters said on Wednesday they had surrounded the Aqraba air base, about 4 km outside the capital.
"We still do not control the air base but the fighters are choking it off. We hope within the coming hours we can take it," said Abu Nidal, a spokesman for the rebel Habib al-Mustafa brigade. He said rebels captured a unit of air defence soldiers nearby, killing and imprisoning dozens while others escaped.
Accounts like this from Syria are impossible to verify, as the government has restricted media access to the country.
The army's strategy has been to divide Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad's seat of power, from the countryside where rebels are increasingly dominant. Air raids and artillery have pounded rebel-held suburbs near the city for more than a week, in what activists call the worst shelling yet in the area.
A Syrian government source said that the army had managed to push the rebels back 9 km from the capital. Rebels contacted did not confirm or deny this, but said their the goal was not yet to enter the city.
"It is very clear that the government wants to cut off the capital, the city was built that way with it's air bases all around it. Right now we are concerning ourselves with certain strategic points that we want to take before we try to enter the city," said the spokesman Abu Nidal, speaking by Skype.
NATO's says the Patriot missiles it will send to Turkey are purely defensive, but Syria and its allies Russia and Iran have criticised the decision, saying it increases regional instability.
Turkey, a NATO member hostile to Assad and hosting thousands of refugees, says it needs the air defence batteries to shoot down any missiles that might be fired across its border. The German, Dutch and U.S. troops would take weeks to deploy.
NATO ministers meeting in Brussels also unanimously expressed "grave concern" about U.S. intelligence reports suggesting Syria might use chemical weapons as a last resort to protect Assad, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen and officials from a number of Western countries have warned this week that any use of chemical weapons by Syria would prompt an international response. Syria says it would never use chemical weapons on its own people.
Fighting also continued for a seventh day around the Damascus International Airport, where opposition activists say the airport road has become an on-off battle zone.
Fighting around Damascus has led foreign airlines to suspend flights and prompted the United Nations and European Union to reduce their presence, adding to a sense that the fight is closing in, although neither side has made a decisive advance.
More than 160 people were killed across the country on Tuesday, according to the opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group which includes civilians and fighters from both sides in its count. It said at least 58 people died around Damascus and its surrounding countryside.
Syria's conflict has killed more than 40,000 people and foreign powers have remained deadlocked over the crisis. Western powers support the opposition, while Russia and China have blocked anti-Assad resolutions at the U.N. Security Council.
Violence in Syria threatens to destabilise its neighbours, particularly Lebanon, whose sectarian makeup reflects lines of tension in Syria. Sunni Muslims there have mostly supported the opposition, led by Syria's Sunni majority, while minorities have been more wary of the revolt. Many support Assad, particularly members of his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Sectarian clashes have repeatedly erupted in Lebanon's mostly Sunni city of Tripoli, which has an Alawite minority. Two days of clashes that began late Monday have killed 4 people.
Tensions grew in Lebanon after the assassination of anti-Assad General Wissam al-Hassan, killed in October by a car bomb in Beirut, and the deaths of 14 Lebanese gunmen, killed in Syria by the army as they apparently went to join the rebels. (Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Peter Graff)