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Saturday, July 21, 2012
A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle died yesterday from wounds sustained in a bomb attack this week and his forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels targeting the heart of his power.
As refugees flooded across Syria’s borders and banks were reported to have run out of cash, Russia’s envoy to Paris added to a sense Assad’s days were numbered by saying he had accepted he would have to leave power.
Syrian state television flashed a government statement saying the comments were "completely devoid of truth" while Russia’s Paris embassy said they had been taken out of context.
Assad, 46, has not spoken since Wednesday’s attack on a meeting of his high command and only appeared on Thursday to appoint a new defence minister to replace one of the assassinated men.
The next few days will be critical in determining whether Assad’s government can recover from the devastating blow of the bombing of his inner circle which destroyed its aura of invulnerability.
Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the defence minister, his deputy — Assad’s brother-in-law — and a senior general was held yesterday in Damascus, without mentioning whether Assad attended.
It also said Syria’s intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar had died of wounds from the attack on Assad’s close-knit six-man "crisis unit", in charge of suppressing the 16-month uprising threatening four decades of Assad’s Alawite family rule.
In the latest violence in Damascus, rebels set fire to a military barracks which opposition sources said was used as a training ground for shabbiha militiamen loyal to Assad after a two-day siege, a witness said.
"The Saiqa (thunderbolt) barracks is now on fire. About 80 shabbiha and army who have been defending it have withdrawn," Abu Ilizz, a resident of the district adjacent to the Council of Ministers building, said by telephone.
The conflict has changed from an uprising in poor towns and villages to a civil war that has reached the capital.
It has become a proxy conflict pitting Russia and Shi’ite Muslim Iran, which back Assad, against Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which are arming and funding the Sunni rebels.
The rebels include the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors joined by Sunni youths, as well as al-Qaeda style Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and local pro-democracy Sunni liberals.
Clashes in Damascus raged on for a sixth day.
Government forces and opponents are fighting with the ferocity of those who know what awaits them if they lose.
Rebels from elsewhere in Syria have poured into the capital for what they called "Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake" saying this would be the final battle for the city. The Syrian government also said that this would be the last battle.
"The regime is going through its last days," Abdelbasset Seida, the leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, said in Rome, predicting a dramatic escalation in violence in the 16-month-old revolt.
Clashes were fiercest overnight in the sprawling Mezzeh district, where rebels appear to be sustaining attacks on many security compounds located there, residents said.
State television said Syrian forces had cleared the central district of Midan of "mercenaries and terrorists".
Opposition activists and rebels sources confirmed that they had withdrawn after coming under heavy bombardment.
"It is a tactical withdrawal. We are still in Damascus," Abu Omar, a rebel commander, said by telephone.
Adding to the sense of crisis, power in many parts of the city had been cut as temperatures rose to above 40 degrees Celsius.
Residents in central Damascus said shops were closed, roads were empty and only a handful of people were outside. The normally heavy traffic of the cramped Middle Eastern city was missing; only a few cars were moving along its boulevards.
"We have heard reports that many of the banks have just run out of money," Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, told a briefing in Geneva.
Residents reported a lack of government checkpoints in the heart of the city and fewer guards in front of the Interior Ministry a day after the police headquarters was burned down.
Another Syrian general fled to Turkey overnight, along with four colonels and 17 lower-ranking officers, a Turkish official said, bringing the number of generals sheltering there to 22.
A total of 310 Syrians, including 98 security personnel, were killed on Thursday, the Observatory said, the highest daily death toll so far.
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