December 4, 2012 / 11:06 AM / 5 years ago

Syrian army pounds south Damascus to stem rebel gains

BEIRUT, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Syrian forces bombarded rebel districts south-east of Damascus on Tuesday in a sustained counter-attack to stem rebel gains around the capital.

The fighting around Damascus has led foreign airlines to suspend flights and prompted the United Nations and European Union to scale down their presence in the capital, adding to a sense that the fight is closing in on President Bashar al-Assad's power base.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 people were killed across Syria on Monday, more than 60 of them around Damascus. Assad's forces bombarded districts to the south-east of the capital on Tuesday, near the international airport, and in the rebel bastion of Daraya to the south-west.

In central Damascus, shielded for many months from the full force of a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed, one resident reported hearing several loud explosions.

"I have heard four or five thunderous blows. It could be barrel bombs," she said, referring to makeshift bombs which activists say Assad's forces have dropped from helicopters on rebel areas.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebel forces have made advances in recent weeks, seizing military bases including some close to Damascus.

Faced with creeping rebel gains across the north and east of the country, and the growing challenge around the capital, Assad has increasingly resorted to air strikes against the insurgents.

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