Key areas of Syrian capital under increasing fire

Fighting intensifies in southern outskirts of Damascus as regime loyalists and rebels battle for control of the gateways to the city.

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Damascus //Rebels and regime loyalists fought over key areas on the outskirts of Damascus yesterday, as the intensifying war prompted renewed diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

From early morning, forces loyal to president Bashar Al Assad fired a steady stream of mortar and shellfire into Daraya and Muadamiya, rebel strongholds on the southern outskirts of the capital. The latest outbreak of fighting there has been underway for weeks.

Whoever holds the districts controls the main western and southern gateways to Damascus. Daraya is also a vantage point from which opposition forces can attack Mezze airport, a major military installation on the edge of the city.

In addition to regular army troops, residents of the southern suburbs said they had seen militia-style units in the area yesterday, playing loud pro-regime songs as they drove in civilian pickup trucks, fitted with anti-aircraft guns and ad hoc armour plating.

Nonetheless, main roads in the suburbs were open to ordinary traffic yesterday afternoon, although few people were out in cars.

To the east of Damascus, rebels said the international airport was now a combat zone, warning civilians they would use the sole motorway linking it to the city centre "at their own risk".

Even if rebels are not able to close the road by force, civilian traffic now seems more likely than ever to avoid using it out of fear. One Damascus resident said taxis prepared to make the 12km journey between the city and the airport were now asking for as much as 6,000 SYP (Dh260), compared to 1,000 SYP a few weeks ago. Civilian flights have also been cut back.

The deepening crisis in Syria, and recent alarm over the possible use of chemical weapons, has prompted a new outbreak of diplomatic activity, including an unexpected three-way meeting in Dublin between US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy for Syria.

Moscow has given crucial backing to Mr Al Assad, while the US has sided with his opponents, a division that has paralysed the United Nations Security Council and prevented any internationally brokered solutions.

"Russia and the United States agreed that our experts will meet in the coming days with Brahimi and his people for a brainstorm and an exchange of opinions on how to move forward toward a resolution," Mr Lavrov said after the talks held on Thursday, although he warned against expecting breakthroughs.

Mr Brahimi also said there had been "no sensational decisions" but a discussion about "how we can work out hopefully a process that will get Syria back from the brink".

Although heavy fighting near to the capital has been sustained and is taking place simultaneously over a wide swathe of the suburbs, the balance of forces remains hard to gauge.

Rebels, and their supporters, have pushed a narrative of opposition forces converging decisively on the capital, with a final battle for Damascus close at hand.

In official and semi-official news outlets, the Syrian authorities say the opposite is true, with "terrorists" - their term for the rebels - suffering dramatic losses during a successful counter offensive.

Sana, the state run news agency, said leading rebels, including foreign fighters from Chechnya, were killed by the army outside of Damascus yesterday.

"The situation is changing rapidly and the rebels have been making ground but it is still much too soon to talk about the fall of Damascus," said an independent analyst based in the city.

"If the FSA is to take the Damascus it will require a lot more hard fighting and much more death and destruction, we all know that," he said.

More than 42,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, most of them civilians, according to human-rights monitors.

Another 95 were reported killed nationwide yesterday by the Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of opposition activists. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 77 people had been killed. Neither figure could be independently verified.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said yesterday he had not received any confirmed reports that Damascus was preparing to use chemical weapons, but said it would be an "outrageous crime" if it did so. Several western countries have this week warned Mr Al Assad's government not to resort to chemical arms, with many citing intelligence which Washington said showed the leader might be preparing to use poisonous gas.

Also yesterday, the Dutch government agreed a Nato request to send two Patriot missile defence systems to Turkey, in addition to batteries that will be deployed by Germany and the US.