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Syrian forces stretched as intelligence chief dies


A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle died today from a bomb attack this week and his forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels who have converged on the capital.

As refugees flooded across Syria's borders and UN officials said they had heard banks in Damascus had 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 soon afterwards saying the comments were "completely devoid of truth".

Assad has not spoken since Wednesday's attack on a meeting of his high command and only appeared yesterday to appoint a new defence minister to replace one of the assassinated men.

Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the defence minister, his deputy - Assad's brother-in-law - and a senior general was being held today in Damascus.

It said later Syria's intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar had died this morning of wounds sustained in the same attack.

Clashes continued in Damascus for a sixth day and at least three people were killed when Syrian army helicopters fired rockets at the southeastern neighbourhood of Saida Zeinab, opposition activists said.

Rebels from elsewhere in Syria have poured into the capital for what they say is the final battle for Damascus.

"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 possible dramatic escalation in violence.

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 Opposition activists and rebels sources confirmed today that they had withdrawn after coming under heavy bombardment.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.