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Syria rebels attack near Damascus core

Syrian rebels battle Assad’s forces close to the heart of Damascus seeking a breakthrough.

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 on June 27, 2012. Picture: AFP

AMMAN - Syrian rebels battled President Bashar al-Assad's forces on the edge of central Damascus on Wednesday, opposition activists said, seeking to break through to the heart of the capital.

Their offensive aims to break a stalemate in the city of 2 million people, where artillery and air strikes have prevented rebels entrenched to the east from advancing despite their capture of army fortifications, the activists said.

"We have moved the battle to Jobar," said Captain Islam Alloush of the rebel Islam Brigade. The district links rebel strongholds in the suburbs with the central Abbasid Square.

"The heaviest fighting is taking place in Jobar because it is the key to the heart of Damascus," he said.

Assad, battling to crush a 22-month-old uprising in which 60,000 people have died, has lost control of large parts of the country but his forces, backed by air power, have so far kept rebels on the fringes of the capital.

Despite the setbacks, Assad has remained defiant, telling a visiting senior Iranian official on Sunday that Syria was able to confront "current threats ... and aggression".

That visit came just after Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib in Moscow. Iran is Syria's strongest backer in the region.

Salehi said on Wednesday the Syrian government may be ready to respond positively to Alkhatib's offer of direct peace talks.

"I think that the Syrian government is ready to negotiate with the opposition," he told Egyptian state news agency MENA during a visit to Cairo.

But Alkhatib gave the Syrian government until Sunday to release all women detainees; otherwise he would regard his offer of dialogue as rejected by Assad.

"If any woman stays in prison, I consider the regime not responding," BBC Arabic quoted him as saying.

Meanwhile Syrian state media denied rebel gains in Jobar and said the army had pushed back rebels from the neighbourhood and other parts of the Ghouta area of eastern Damascus.

"Our noble army is continuing its operations against the terrorists in Irbeen, Zamalka and Harasta and Sbeineh, destroying the criminal lairs," Syrian television said.

But video footage taken by activists purported to show opposition fighters inside Jobar after they overran an army road block, and rebels said they had made significant gains.

"Parts of the Damascus ring road fell to us today. The road has been effectively the last remaining barrier between the Ghouta and the city," said Abu Ghazi, a rebel commander based in the eastern suburb of Irbeen.

"I don't want to give people false hopes but I think if street fighting reaches central Damascus, the regime will not be able to quell it this time."

A disorganised rebel advance on the city failed last year. Ghazi said that this time opposition fighters had established supply lines to support their offensive.

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