Army takes rebel stronghold; battle in Damascus
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's army took control of the rebel stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province on Friday after an assault on the town backed by helicopters, an insurgent spokesman said.
Fighting also erupted between Free Syrian Army rebels and loyalist forces in the Kfar Souseh quarter of central Damascus after security forces moved in to stop a protest against President Bashar al-Assad near the Nouaim mosque. The district is home to major intelligence and secret police installations.
"The Free Army withdrew from the town (Khan Sheikhoun) last night after it ran out of ammunition. Assad's army is in control of it," said Abu Hamam, a rebel spokesman. "They are burning the houses. They have burned my own house. I see the smoke covering the sky from where I am now," he said.
Khan Sheikhoun, a town of more than 70,000 people in rural Idlib province, straddles the western highway linking Damascus to Aleppo. It has been one of many fronts contested by the Syrian army which aims to crush a 16-month revolt against Assad.
Activists say 80 percent of residents have now fled.
The rebels said they had suffered heavy losses in battles which intensified on Wednesday night.
"This is a very fierce operation that is going on now. It seems Assad has sent all of his army to crush Khan Sheikhoun and the towns around it," Abu Hamam said.
In the Damascus district, explosions were heard from fields near the mosque and at least two armored vehicles moved to the area, according to opposition activists. They said six people had been injured, one critically.
"Automatic rifles and machineguns are being used," a witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Government intelligence and secret police installations in the Kfar Souseh district are now ringed with concrete barriers and walls. Residents say fighting there has become more frequent and more fierce in the past two weeks.
Security forces also fired at an anti-Assad demonstration in the al-Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Damascus and casualties were reported, opposition sources in Damascus told Reuters.
Government forces also fired mortar rounds at the rebellious Qadam neighborhood on the edge of city and at the suburb of Daraya. No casualty figures have yet come in, the sources said.
In western Syria, army artillery was reported to be shelling the town of Madaya in the Sunni Muslim Zabadani region in the foothills of the mountain range that separates Syria from Lebanon, according to opposition campaigners from the region.
(Reporting by Mariam Karouny and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Andrew Osborn)
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