Syrian forces bombard Damascus
Syrian forces regained control of one of two border crossings seized by rebels.
BEIRUT - Syrian forces bombarded parts of Damascus with helicopter gunships on Sunday, witnesses said, rounding people up as troops clawed back territory a week after opposition fighters launched a major assault on the capital.
In a further escalation of a conflict that opponents of President Bashar al-Assad have turned into all-out civil war, fighting raged around the intelligence headquarters in the biggest city Aleppo and in Deir al-Zor in the east.
Syrian forces regained control of one of two border crossings seized by rebels on the frontier with Iraq, Iraqi officials said, but rebels said they had captured a third border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Salam north of Aleppo.
"Seizing the border crossings does not have strategic importance but it has a psychological impact because it demoralises Assad's force," a senior Syrian army defector in Turkey, Staff Brigadier Faiz Amr, told Reuters by phone.
"It's a show of progress for the revolutionaries, despite the superior firepower of Assad's troops."
The bombardments in Damascus and Deir al-Zor were some of the fiercest yet and showed Assad's determination to avenge a bomb on Wednesday that killed four members of his high command.
It was the gravest blow in a 16-month-old uprising that has turned into an armed revolt against four decades of Assad rule.
Rebels were driven from Mezzeh, the diplomatic district of Damascus, residents and opposition activists said, and more than 1,000 government troops and allied militiamen poured into the area, backed by armoured vehicles, tanks and bulldozers.
Three people were killed and 50 others, mostly civilians, were wounded in the early morning bombardment, said Thabet, a Mezzeh resident. "The district is besieged and the wounded are without medical care," he said.
"I saw men stripped to their underwear. Three buses took detainees from al-Farouk, including women and whole families. Several houses have been set on fire."
The division is run by Assad's younger brother, Maher al-Assad, 41, who is widely seen as the muscle maintaining the Assad family's Alawite minority rule.
His role has become more crucial since Assad's defence and intelligence ministers, a top general and his powerful brother-in-law were killed by the bomb on Wednesday, part of a "Damascus volcano" by rebels seeking to turn the tables in a revolt inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Assad has not spoken in public since the bombing. Diplomats and opposition sources said government forces were focusing on strategic centres, with one Western diplomat comparing Assad to a doctor "abandoning the patient's limbs to save the organs".
FIGHTING IN ALEPPO
Syrian state television quoted a media source denying that helicopters had fired on the capital. "The situation in Damascus is normal, but the security forces are pursuing the remnants of the terrorists in some streets," it said.
Assad's forces, who also pushed into a rebel-held district in the northerly commercial hub of Aleppo on Saturday, targeted pockets of lightly armed rebels, who moved about the streets on foot, attacking security installations and roadblocks.
Other opposition and rebel sources say the guerrilla fighters in the capital may lack the supply lines to remain there for long and may have to stage 'tactical withdrawals'.
Residents said the shelling was so intense at dusk they could not discern the traditional cannon blast marking the end of the daily fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
On Sunday opposition activists reported fighting in Jdeidet Artouz, a suburb southwest of Damascus, 30 km (20 miles) from the occupied Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. Tanks entered the suburb in the morning, they said.
Israel and Syria's other neighbours are increasingly fearful the conflict could tear through an already unstable region.
The Iraqi army sent extra border guards and officers on Sunday to the Qaim-Albu Kamal border crossing with Syria captured by the rebels on Thursday. The border was sealed by the Iraqi army on Friday, fearing a spillover in violence and Iraq's government has said it cannot help Syrians fleeing the violence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,261 people had been killed across Syria since last Sunday when the fighting escalated in Damascus, including 299 of Assad's forces, making it by far the bloodiest week in an uprising that has claimed the lives of 18,000 people
A total of 180 people, including 48 troops, died on Saturday alone, many them in Homs province, epicentre of the revolt.
Most shops in Damascus were closed and there was only light traffic - although more than in the past few days. Some police checkpoints, abandoned earlier in the week, were manned again.
Many petrol stations were closed, having run out of fuel, and those that were open had huge lines of cars waiting to fill up. Residents reported long queues at bakeries.