Syrian troops and tanks yesterday drove rebels from a Damascus neighborhood where some of the heaviest of this week’s fighting in the capital left cars gutted and fighters’ bodies in the streets.
More than 300 people were killed in a single day, activists said, as the military struggled to regain momentum after a stunning bombing against the regime’s leadership.
A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, national security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, yesterday died of wounds he suffered in Wednesday’s bomb blast, which went off during a high-level security meeting in Damascus, the government announced.
The bombing has been a resounding blow to al-Assad, killing his defense minister and his influential brother-in-law along with another security official, all central to directing the crackdown on the uprising against his rule.
The blast, six days of sustained fighting in neighborhoods across the heart of the capital and the fall of several border posts into rebel hands have pointed to the unraveling of al-Assad’s grip on power amid an uprising that began in March last year with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring, but became increasingly militarized as the opposition took up arms.
Regime troops regained control of the district of al-Midan in the southern part of Damascus yesterday and eagerly took journalists on a tour to prove it, but rebels launched new fighting in several other districts of the capital, activists said.
Battles involving troops bringing in tanks, helicopters and mortars have turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighboring Lebanon.
“Our heroic forces have completely cleansed the al-Midan area of the terrorist mercenaries,” state TV announced, employing the term used by authorities to refer to the rebels.
It said authorities seized large quantities of weapons, including machine guns, explosive belts, rocket-propelled grenades and communications equipment.
Damascus activist Khaled al-Shami, contacted via Skype, said rebels carried out a “tactical” retreat early yesterday to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces.
However, in an indication of the volatile security situation, the government took local journalists for the trip to al-Midan inside two armored personal carriers.
A reporter on the trip saw scenes of destruction, including dozens of damaged or charred cars and stores with shattered windows.
The corpses of at least six young men lay on the street. One of them, near the mosque, appeared to have been shot in the chest. Others were bearded and dressed in black with axes next to them. Garbage littered the streets, shops were closed and the streets were almost deserted.
However, the rebels continued to strike elsewhere in the capital.
Rebels attacked a police station on Khaled bin Waleed Street, where heavy fighting was going on, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Clashes were also reported in the northern Barzeh and Rukneddine districts.
Details on the fighting were not immediately available.
A Syria-based activist who goes by the name of Bashir al-Dimashqi said the rebels in Damascus were staging hit-and-run attacks and striking at security targets, as opposed to controlling areas.