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Syria Live Coverage: Fighting Escalates Near Damascus

A regime tank fires from a main highway into Jobar, near Damascus

See also Syria 1st-Hand: Battle in Damascus Takes Toll on Regime Soldiers (New York Times)
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Sunday's Syria Live Coverage: Assad Changes His Ministers Amid Economic Crisis

1930 GMT: Car Bombs. Footage has been posted of the aftermath of today's explosions at the Turkish border, with smoke rising and victims screaming.

1800 GMT: Negotiations. Ali Haidar, the Minister for National Reconciliation, has told a British journalist, "I am willing to meet [head of opposition National Moaz] al-Khatib in any foreign city where I can go in order to discuss preparations for a national dialogue."

Al-Khatib said earlier this month that he will enter discussions with the Assad regime if it meets conditions such as the release of political prisoners.

Haidar, without making commitments, said the discussion could lead to political reforms:

The dialogue is a means to provide a mechanism for reaching free parliamentary and presidential elections. This is one of the subjects which will be discussed at the table. Such a thing could be the result of negotiations, but not a precondition.

We reject a dialogue that is just to hand power from one side to another.

1548 GMT: Death Toll Rising. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 63 people have been killed so far today:

22 martyrs were reported in Aleppo, 18 martyrs in Damascus and its Suburbs, 10 martyrs in Idlib, 7 martyrs in Daraa, 4 martyrs in Homs and 2 martyrs in Deir Ezzor.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

1503 GMT: Rebels Overrun Regime Near Tabaqa Dam. This video reportedly shows the Air Force Intelligence building (map) overrun by rebels. The street does appear to be scarred by some fighting, suggesting that the building was in fact occupied when rebels attacked it. According to the Associated Press, Jabhat al Nusra led the attack, though other rebel units were involved. This matches our understanding of the tactical situation in the area.

1430 GMT: Explosion at Bab al Hawa border crossing. This grainy and chaotic Youtube video claims to show the border crossing where a car bomb explosions killed at least 7. From what we can tell, it appears that lines of cars were prepared to cross the border when the explosion hit:

1415 GMT: Truce on Lebanon Border. CNN reports that in Tal Kalakh, west on Homs on the border with Lebanon (map), the Free Syrian Army and the Assad military have agreed to a tense truce, brokered by an Alawite member of Syria's parliament:

1410 GMT: Turkish Border Attack. Turkish officials now say that at least 7 people have been killed in the car bombing at a Turkish border crossing:

"There are at least seven dead, 33 wounded and that number could go up ... We don't know whether this was a suicide bomb or whether a car that was smuggling petrol across the border blew up," the official told Reuters.

1346 GMT: Car Bomb on Turkish Border. This news flashed from Lebanese news sources not long ago:

More than 40 people were wounded on Monday when a mortar round landed close to a border gate on the Turkish-Syrian border near the Turkish town of Reyhanli, CNN Turk television reported.

A police official in Reyhanli said what appeared to be a mortar round landed in no-man's land at the Cilvegozu border gate and that there were dead and wounded.

Now, LBC News Group and Turkish media report that it was a car bomb, not a mortar shell.

1335 GMT: Assad Scrambling for Damascus. This rebel offensive in Damascus is different than the others. It does not appear to be designed to hold territory, but to keep Assad on his back foot. The rebels have taken positions, withdrawn, and hit other positions. And the strategy appears to be working. Previous to this offensive, the front lines of battle in Damascus were in Darayya. Now, it appears that Assad may be abandoning his fight there to concentrate on holding the eastern districts of the capital, according to a Reuters report:

He said the army appeared to be under so much pressure in Jobar that it had moved tanks there from the southwestern suburb of Daraya, near the highway to the Jordanian border, where it has been battling rebels for two months...

Sham News Network, an opposition group of media activists, said rebels overran an army barracks in Jobar and had attacked a roadblock in Afif neighborhood overnight. Afif is located near one of Assad's presidential compounds in the foothills of Qasioun Mountain, northwest of the city.

Activists also reported a mortar attack on a police station in the central Damascus neighborhood of Arnous. It was not clear whether the mortars hit the target or if there were casualties.

Jobar (map) is the key to holding the eastern districts of the city, as it is at the crossroads of several key neighborhoods. The fighting there has been heavy for days, and is taking its toll on the neighborhood:

The damage to a mosque in the district:

A tank races through the streets.

Dated yesterday, a Youtube channel we'ren ot familiar with posts this video, reportedly showing a tank firing in Jobar, and rebels firing an RPG at it.

Possible evidence that this offensive is also fueled by new foreign weapons - It's not possible to see the entire weapon, but that may be an M79 Osa anti-tank weapon in the hands of that Free Syrian Army fighter. As we've written, that weapon is foreign made, appears to be part of a shipment of foreign arms that has made it into rebel hands, and suggests that these weapons are playing a key role in the fight for Damascus.

The footage has not been independently verified.

1253 GMT: The Tabaqa Dam. For additional context about the rebel capture of the Tabqa (or Tabaqa) dam, one need only look at the amount of Assad bases nearby. There are three small military outposts along the shore of the river, and a very large air force base just to the south of the town:

View Syria - 2013 February 11 - EA Worldview in a larger map

Though it has captured few headlines, Al Raqqah city is under siege, and the surrounding territory, once an Assad stronghold, has largely been overrun, cutting Aleppo's supply routes to the west, and Deir Ez Zor's to the southeast. It's too early to tell if this rebel offensive will have any long-term significance on either the strategic situation between the Aleppo and al Raqqah or the cities' power supplies, but it is a demonstration of the strength of the rebels distributed across the countryside. Furthermore, each captured base brings fresh weapons, ammunition, and supplies for the rebels, and allows them to concentrate on fewer regime targets.

It's also not entirely clear which rebel brigades were responsible for sacking the dam.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us through to the afternoon.

1218 GMT: Insurgents Capture Dam. Insurgents have taken control of the country's biggest hydro-electric dam on the Euphrates River, activists claim.

The activists said Islamist fighters seized the entrances to the dam, although gunmen had not entered the main operations room and the dam continued to function.

The Islamists had earlier swept through the nearby town of Tabqa, renamed al-Thawra (Revolution) by the regime. Video footage showed a statue of Bashar al-Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, set on fire in the town and an abandoned Air Force Security base.

"The dam was protected by an artillery battery and many intelligence units. The rebels moved on them in a lightning offensive yesterday, overrunning their positions and capturing scores of personnel," said Abu Ziad Teif, an opposition activist in contact with insrugents.

He said it was not clear whether the rebels would be able to keep the dam in operation and whether enough employees were left at the site. Extra power cuts were reported in Aleppo, which is partly supplied by the dam.

0734 GMT: Homs. Jonathan Steele of The Guardian, escorted into Syria's third city by four officials, offers this picture, contrasting it ith the gathering tension in Damascus:

A year after this city captured the world's attention as the victim of the worst shelling that Syria's civil war had yet seen, Homs has become a --– relatively --- safe haven. Hundreds of families who fled to other Syrian cities in fear last February have loaded their belongings and returned. Civilians from Aleppo and Deir el-Zour – where fighting is still intense – are moving to Homs because they have heard it is more livable.

"It's the only case I know of in Syria where people are returning after a long period of displacement. Homs may be quieter than Damascus", Khaled Erksoussi, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent's emergency response team told me in the capital before I set off on the 100-mile drive north. He was right.

The boom of heavy shelling, promptly followed by the screeching of birds in panic, repeatedly fills the Damascene sky. It was in full and murderous throat again when I returned. Yet for 24 hours in Homs I heard only a few explosions, apparently directed towards targets beyond the ring road. In the city centre the street markets are thronged with shoppers. Groups of students wander in and out of the university, or stand around chatting. Checkpoints at several cross-roads create minor traffic jams but the soldiers seem relaxed and perfunctory as they check ID cards and car-boots, no doubt happy to be assigned to minor tasks rather than be sent to risky, remote areas. Homs even boasts a number of armed women in uniform who have volunteered for a newly created home guard.

0730 GMT: Negotiations. Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the opposition National Coalition, has repeated his willingness for negotiations --- this time, offering to speak with President Assad's representatives in insurgent-held areas of northern Syria.

The aim of the talks would be to find a way for Assad to leave power with the "minimum of bloodshed and destruction", al-Khatib said in a statement published on his Facebook page: "If the regime is concerned about national sovereignty and does not want to leave the Syrian territories, there is an appropriate solution, the liberated lands in northern Syria."

Al-Khatib met United Natios envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Cairo on Sunday. Brahimi urged the opposition leader to keep seeking dialogue with the regime, the UN said.

Syrian officials have not responded directly to al-Khatib's initiative. Minister of Information Amran al-Zoubi said on Friday that the regime was ready for "national dialogue", but he set the pre-condition of an end to the arming of insurgents.

0510 GMT: Damascus. The recent wave of fighting in and near Damascus grew more intense on Sunday, as insurgents and regime forces battled on a main highway and in an 8-kilometre belt around the capital.

Checkpoints into the city have changed hands several times since Wednesday. An insurgent said yesterday that opposition forces Sunday overran the al-Adnan checkpoint in Jobar, northeast of Damascus. Video showed a regime tank firing into the area from the highway nearby.

In the east of the country, insurgents attacked near Deir Ez Zor, using tanks to shell the regime brigade holding the city. The countryside was reportedly exhausted of water and electricity for the 11th day in a row.

In the northeast province of Raqqa, fighters from the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra and other battalions took over an army position in Tabqa along the Euphrates river, securing artillery and ammunition and taking control of a key checkpoint.

Insurgents also continued their assault on the Wadi Deif military base, a major regime holdout in the largely insurgent-held Idlib Province in the northwest, while the army retaliated by shelling the nearby town of Maaret al-Numan.

The Local Coordination Committees claim 124 people were killed on Sunday, including 38 in Damascus and Damascus suburbs, 33 in Aleppo Province, and 24 in Deir Ez Zor Province.

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