Syrian rebels win British support

Britain has officially recognised the Syrian National Coalition giving rebels a diplomatic lift.

A small fire smolders (L) at the site of an attack on the pro-government Al-Ikhbariya satellite television channel's offices outside Damascus, which killed three staff. Picture: AFP

AMMAN - Syrian government troops backed by tanks battled to oust rebel forces from an opposition stronghold in a Damascus suburb on Tuesday in the heaviest fighting in the capital for months.

In the country's north, rebel fighters stormed an air defence base that President Bashar al-Assad's military had used to bombard areas near the Turkish border.

On the international front, the Turkish foreign minister said NATO states had agreed to supply Turkey with a Patriot missile system to defend against Syrian cross-border shelling.

Although any such deployment would be for defensive purposes only, it nonetheless marked a hardening stance in the foreign effort to remove Assad.

The rebels also received a diplomatic lift with Britain officially recognising the opposition Syrian National Coalition, set up this month to boost their chances of securing foreign aid and arms, as the Syrian people's legitimate representative.

It was the ninth country to do so following France, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states.

After months of slow progress marked by poor organisation and supply problems, the rebels have captured several army positions in outlying regions in the last week, including a Special Forces base near Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub.

They are also trying to take the 20-month-old revolt to the heart of Damascus, Assad's seat of power, and have dubbed this week "March to Damascus Week".

On Tuesday, elite Republican Guard troops attacked the rebel stronghold of Daraya on the city's south-western edge but met resistance from rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army, opposition sources said.

Seven civilians and three rebels were killed in fighting and bombardments on Daraya, the sources said.

Video footage showed the body of a baby at a hospital. A young couple died from shrapnel when artillery hit the basement of a building in which they were sheltering, activists said.

"The Republican Guards are hitting the town with tanks, artillery and rockets. Most civilians had fled and those who have stayed are trapped with nowhere to escape," Abu Kinan, an activist in the Daraya, said by phone.

A Western diplomat following the fighting said Assad had to show he could repel the rebel challenge to Damascus.

"He has to show that letting the bases fall in and round Damascus is only temporary while he begins to consolidate resources and personnel and deals with the struggles in the east," the diplomat said.

Also on Tuesday, two mortar rounds hit the Information Ministry building in Damascus, causing damage but no casualties, state television said. It blamed "terrorists" for the attack, the usual government term for anti-Assad forces.

In total, 100 people were killed in violence on Tuesday, 64 of them civilians, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In the north, opposition sources said rebel fighters had captured sections an air defence base at Sheikh Suleiman, 18 km (11 miles) from the Turkish border and 30 km (20 miles) northwest of Aleppo.

The fighters seized three artillery pieces and large stocks of explosives but would withdraw to avoid retaliatory air strikes, opposition source said.

"Assad's forces use the base to shell many villages and towns in the countryside. It is now neutralised," one said.