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Syria: Fighting around Damascus escalates - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Fighters from the Free Syrian Army's Al Rahman legion prepare their weapons in Mleha suburb of Damascus, during what the rebel fighters said was an offensive against them by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad April 2, 2014. Picture taken April 2, 2014.  (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army’s Al-Rahman legion prepare their weapons in the Mleha suburb of Damascus during what the rebel fighters said was an offensive against them by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad on April 2, 2014. (Reuters/Bassam Khabieh)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Syrian rebels said on Wednesday that fighting in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus, had witnessed an “unprecedented escalation” in recent days.

Ismail Al-Darani, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council in the Rif Dimashq governorate, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Government forces have opened battlefronts in Rif Dimashq, adjacent to eastern Ghouta,” adding that fighting was also taking place in the districts of Jobar, Al-Maliha and Ain Tarma.

Darani said that Assad regime forces were seeking to push the rebels out to eastern Ghouta in an attempt so secure the eastern part of the capital, particularly after rebel forces escalated mortar attacks on Damascus in recent days. Local media reported that a mortar shell landed at the Al-Faiha Sports City in northern Damascus on Wednesday, killing at least one person. Mortar shells also stuck the southeastern suburb of Jaramana, injuring at least seven people.

“Rebel fighters repulsed the attack, killing at least six [government] fighters,” Darani said.

The reports of increased fighting in and around the capital come as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, announced that the one millionth Syrian refugee registered in Lebanon had been officially registered.

Syrian refugees—half of whom are children—constitute a quarter of the population of Lebanon, making it the country with the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.

“The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country. For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering,” Guterres said.

School-aged Syrian refugees in Lebanon exceed those in Lebanese public schools, putting strains on the small country’s educational sector.

“The number of school-aged children is now over 400,000, eclipsing the number of Lebanese children in public schools. These schools have opened their doors to over 100,000 refugees, yet the ability to accept more is severely limited,” he said.

The UN estimates that 600,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Jordan and 670,000 in Turkey.

Guterres urged the international community to boost support for Lebanon and other countries hosting Syrian refugees.

On Saturday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki–Moon announced that the international community is preparing for a third conference on Syria following what many view as the failure of the Geneva II talks earlier this year.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Ban said the Geneva II talks—which saw the first face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition—failed to secure the desired outcomes for Syria, namely a transition period for the war-torn country.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Syrian National Coalition member Ahmad Radwan said the opposition’s participation in a potential third conference depends on the government’s readiness to discuss the formation of a transitional executive body with full powers.