Syrians flee Damascus as Assad launches fightback

Exodus grows with 60,000 already in Lebanon while cars queue at the border

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The Independent Online

The Syrian regime yesterday launched a desperate campaign to win back territory from rebels attempting to shake the foundations of its power, driving them out of a key Damascus neighbourhood and sending panicked residents flooding across the borders.

The UN refugee agency said it was "gravely concerned" about the welfare of as many as 30,000 refugees who have poured into Lebanon in the past 48 hours. Many fled from the capital, which until this week had been largely unscathed by the violence that has rocked the nation.

After relentless shelling, the government said it had wrested back control of the central neighbourhood of Midan which fell into rebel hands a day earlier. Activists said rebels had made a "tactical withdrawal" to save civilians from the violence.

The deserted streets were left strewn with rubble, burned out cars and the bodies of fighters.

As the fighting continued to engulf several suburbs, the UN Security council finally managed to reach consensus on a watered down resolution on Syria which extends the observer mission for 30 days, just hours before their mandate expired.

The outcome was a disappointment to Western nations including the UK who tabled a Chapter 7 resolution, paving the way for military intervention. However, the council was forced to bow to pressure from Assad's allies Russia and China once more, after they wielded their vetoes for a third time.

President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the capital and his borders has slipped since the bombing of a meeting of the regime's crisis command centre on Wednesday, but the army was yesterday engaged in a fierce campaign to regain ground. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has launched a concerted campaign to take hold of Damascus neighbourhoods and seize strategic checkpoints and border posts, with Thursday the bloodiest day of the conflict so far according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with 310 people killed.

Assad suffered a further blow yesterday as his intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar succumbed to injuries sustained in the bombing. Memorials for the blast's other three victims, including the president's brother-in-law, were held in Damascus yesterday, according to state media, which did not say if the President attended.

With Damascus engulfed in fighting once more, cars queued for hours to cross into Lebanon where aid agencies are struggling to cope with as many as 60,000 refugees already in the country. "Around 10 of my friends have left with their families," said one of resident of Kafr Souseh, which has been rocked by fighting. "They say they are going just for the weekend but I don't think they'll be back unless things calm down. It's been a real war and this is something people in Damascus really aren't used to."

The FSA seized two checkpoints on the Turkish border, and one in Iraq while army troops were distracted by the turmoil in Damascus. Despite reports yesterday that Assad's forces were regaining ground, rebels along the Turkey-Syria border were galvanised. "Taking over the border posts raised the spirits of the rebels," said Ahmad Trad, a defected Syrian helicopter pilot living in Turkey.

He said that in the past days a number of Syrian refugees in Turkey were beginning to make plans to return to Syria and fight with the FSA. "I came here only to rest and I will go back," Mr Trad said. "A lot of people here want to go back to join the Free Syrian Army."

Mustafa Baidak, a rebel commander from the northern Syria town of Jisr al-Shughour, said taking the borders could reopen vital routes for supplies and injured fighters.