SA embassy staff move out of Syria
Staff at the SA embassy in Damascus have moved to neighbouring countries.
JOHANNESBURG - The South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation said embassy staff in Damascus were on Friday urged to move to neighbouring countries because of security concerns there.
The department's spokesperson, Nelson Kgwete, told Eyewitness News that embassy staff were not evacuated, but advised to leave.
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.
Government forces executed at least 20 men, aged approximately 20 to 30, several activists said by phone from Mezzeh.
In a further escalation of a conflict rapidly becoming a civil war, fighting raged around the intelligence headquarters in Syria's 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.
Rebels also seized an army infantry school in the town of Musalmiyeh, 16 km north of Aleppo, and captured several loyalist officers, while others defected, a senior military defector in Turkey and rebel sources inside Syria said.
"This is of big strategic and symbolic importance. The school has ammunition depots and armoured formations and it protects the northern gate to Aleppo," Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh told Reuters by phone from the town of Apayden on the Turkish border.
The bombardments in Damascus and Deir al-Zor were some of the fiercest yet and showed Assad's determination to avenge the bomb attack, the most spectacular blow in a 16-month-old uprising against four decades of rule by the Assad family.
The neighbourhood of Barzeh, one of three northern areas hit by helicopter fire, was overrun by troops commanded by President Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, 41, who is widely seen as the muscle maintaining the Assad family's Alawite minority rule.
"At least 20 Fourth Division tanks and hundreds of its members entered Barzeh this afternoon," opposition activist Abu Kais said by phone from the district.
"I saw troops go into the home of 26-year-old Issa al-Arab. They left him dead with two bullets in his head."
He said people sheltering from the fighting had told him of the summary execution of a 17-year-old, Issa Wahbeh, who was pulled from the shelter and beaten and killed.
Mazen, another opposition activist in Barzeh, said the bodies had been found of four young men who appeared to have been shot at point blank range.
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.