Syrian troops mounted an assault on rebels near Damascus on Thursday, closing off the road to the airport amid a widespread telecommunications outage, as the US weighed what further help it can give the rebels.
Meanwhile, as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi hinted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have to step down to allow for a new Syria, a monitoring group said a government air raid on the northern city of Aleppo killed at least 15 civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army attacked rebel bastions in towns along the highway and near the international airport, with state media saying the road was eventually “secured.”
The fighting around the capital, which came after Internet links went down across Syria, prompted EgyptAir and Emirates to announce the cancellation of flights to Damascus.
Official media said several members of “armed terrorist group, Al-Nusra Front”, had been killed in the town of Aqaba.
Two Austrian soldiers with the UN force on the Golan Heights were shot and wounded in Syria while their convoy was traveling to Damascus airport, the defense ministry in Vienna said.
The pair, whose lives were not in danger, were traveling to Damascus airport to fly back to Austria after their tour of duty, the ministry said.
It was unclear whether they were shot by Syrian government forces or rebels, according to a ministry spokesman.
As activists warned that sudden communication cuts are often a signal of imminent military offensives, US technology companies Akamai and Renesys, which monitor Web traffic, said the country was cut off from the Internet.
In Damascus, users said both Internet and mobile telephone communications were cut and landlines were barely functioning, with the country’s Internet provider citing technical problems.
The US accused the beleaguered Syrian regime of deliberately severing telecommunications links in what it said was a sign of desperation.
“We condemn this latest assault on the Syrian people’s ability to express themselves and communicate with each other and it just, again, speaks to the kind of desperation of the regime,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
She added, however, that some 2,000 communications sets supplied to opposition rebels over recent months as part of a US non-lethal assistance program were not affected by the blackout.