BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Syrian forces fought on Friday to take back border posts seized by rebels and announced they had cleared fighters from a central part of the capital, aiming to regain the initiative after coordinated attacks by an emboldened opposition.
But activists said fighting in the Midan district in central Damascus was continuing and residents reported a lack of government checkpoints in the heart of the city and fewer guards in front of the Interior Ministry after days of clashes.
At least three people were killed when Syrian army helicopters fired rockets at the southeastern Damascus neighborhood of Saida Zeinab, opposition activists said.
Government forces struck the rebel-held Bab al-Hawa border post on the frontier with Turkey overnight and shelled the city of Abu Kamal near the main checkpoint on the border with Iraq which was seized by rebels on Thursday, activists said.
The rebels’ capture of the border posts, a day after a bomb killed three of President Bashar al-Assad’s closest lieutenants, underlined a shift in the 16-month-old revolt against his rule.
Assad not spoken since the attack and only appeared on Thursday to appoint a new defense minister.
Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the assassinated defense minister, his deputy – Assad’s brother-in-law – and a senior general was being held on Friday in Damascus.
“Our noble armed forces have cleared Midan of remnants of mercenaries and terrorists to regain security and safety,” the television said earlier, without airing footage of the district.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group monitoring the violence, said residents in Midan had reported tanks and armored personnel vehicles still in pitched battles with rebels in the neighborhood.
Clashes were fiercest overnight in the sprawling Mezzeh district, where rebels appear to be sustaining attacks on many security compounds located there, residents said.
Residents in central Damascus said shops were closed, roads were empty and only a handful of people were outside.
Syrian rebels were still in control of the main Abu Kamal border post on the Euphrates River highway, one of the major trade routes across the Middle East, a senior Iraqi interior ministry official said on Friday.
Other border posts further north, near the Iraqi city of Mosul, appeared to still be under Syrian government army control, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Al-Khafaji told Reuters.
The Observatory said the Syrian army was shelling the city of Abu Kamal, only a few miles from the rebel-held border post and had struck the Bab al-Hawa border post overnight. Rebels said they kept control of Baba al-Hawa through the night.
A total of 310 people, including 98 security personnel, were killed on Thursday, the Observatory said, the highest daily death toll so far. The reports could not be confirmed. The Syrian government restricts access by international journalists.
SECURITY MEN DEAD IN STREETS
In Damascus, a witness in the central old quarter district of Qanawat said the huge headquarters of the Damascus Province Police was black with smoke and abandoned on Thursday after being torched and looted in a rebel attack.
“Three patrol cars came to the site and were hit by roadside bombs,” activist Abu Rateb said by telephone. “I saw three bodies in one car. Others said dozens of security men and shabbiha (pro-Assad militia) lay dead or wounded along Khaled bin al-Walid street, before ambulances took them away.”
The next few days will be critical in determining whether Assad’s government can recover from the devastating blow of the bombing on Wednesday of Assad’s inner circle which destroyed its aura of invulnerability.
Diplomatic efforts – rapidly overtaken by events on the ground – collapsed in disarray on Thursday when Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions unless Syrian authorities halted violence. Washington said the Council had “failed utterly”.
China said Western diplomats were to blame for trying to ram through a draft that did not put enough pressure on opposition groups, China’s official Xinhua news agency said on Friday.
In a commentary, Xinhua said the draft was not balanced and Western diplomats “displayed arrogance and inflexibility” in negotiations, effectively killing it.
A resident who toured much of Damascus late on Thursday said the Interior Ministry at the main Marjeh Square had a fraction of its usual contingent of guards still in place.
Shelling could be heard on the southwestern suburb of Mouadamiyeh from hills overlooking the city where the Fourth Division, commanded by Assad’s brother Maher, is based, he said.
Syrian television showed the bodies of about 20 men in T-shirts and jeans with weapons lying at their sides, sprawled across a road in the capital’s Qaboun district. It described them as members of the “so-called Free Army” killed in battle.
Officials in neighboring Lebanon said refugees were pouring across the frontier: a security source said 20,000 Syrians had crossed on Thursday.
Diplomacy has been largely ineffective throughout the crisis, with Western countries condemning Assad but showing no stomach for the sort of robust intervention that saw NATO bombers help blast Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi from power last year.
Thursday’s failed U.N. Security Council resolution, which would have extended a small, unarmed U.N. monitoring mission, was the third that has been vetoed by Russia and China.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the Security Council had “failed utterly”, and Washington would look elsewhere for ways “to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime and to deliver assistance to those in need”.
To replace the vetoed text, Britain proposed a four-paragraph resolution that would at least extend the expiring mandate of the monitors for 30 days. Russia’s ambassador said he would ask Moscow to consider it.