Helicopter shot down as Syria air war intensifies

Fighter jets continue to bombard opposition strongholds with supporters of Al Assad predicting victory is only a few days away.

A young Syrian distributes bread in the refugee camp of Qah, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.
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DAMASCUS // Syrian military jets bombed the southern edge of Damascus yesterday while Syrian rebels downed their first army helicopter with a ground-to-air missile.
It was the second consecutive day that fighter jets had dropped bombs on Daraya, just six kilometres from the heart of Damascus.
Huge plumes of smoke rose above the skyline after a series of air attacks in the morning and early afternoon.
Throughout the day, southern suburbs were also shaken by an artillery bombardment and government forces and armed rebels fought near the capital. At least 97 shells, rockets and mortars were fired between 8am and 6pm, many of them falling on Daraya and neighbouring Muadamiya, another opposition stronghold.
Syrian government officials said its troops in the area were successfully fighting "terrorists", its term for the armed rebel groups, and their supporters, trying to overthrow the president, Bashar Al Assad.
The pro-government newspaper Al Watan yesterday quoted officials as saying victory in Daraya was only hours, or at most a few days, away.
Syrian rebels shot downed the helicopter while it was on a strafing run over a besieged base in the north-west, a human-rights watchdog said.
"It is the first time that the rebels have shot down a helicopter with a surface-to-air missile," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told Agence France-Presse.
The helicopter was downed at the strategic Sheikh Suleiman base, 25 kilometres west of Aleppo, the last garrison in government hands between Syria's second city and the Turkish border.
Daraya, once home to about 150,000 people - mainly middle-class Sunni Muslims but also Christians - borders Mezzeh military airport and the main motorway running south out of Damascus. Both are key strategic points in the struggle for control of the capital.
Also yesterday, a car bomb hit a security post near Damascus killing two soldiers while Syrian war planes bombed a rebel headquarters near the Turkish border but appeared to miss their target, opposition activists in the region said.
There was no immediate comment from Turkish authorities about the incident in the village of Atima, across the border from the Turkish village of Bukulmez in Hatay province.
A team of experts from Nato arrived yesterday on the Turkish-Syrian border to select missile-battery sites to counter possible threats from Mr Al Assad's forces.
Damascus city centre is firmly held by government forces but in outlying zones, even inside city limits, security units loyal to Mr Al Assad have been engaged in heavy, if sporadic, fighting with the Free Syrian Army since July.
The conflict appears to be intensifying, however, with rebels seeking to increase pressure on the government. They claim to have made a series of gains in recent days, seizing military positions outside of the capital.
That sense of the conflict escalating in Damascus is underscored by the use of attack aircraft so close to the centre of capital in broad daylight. On Monday afternoon activists reported that a jet bombed Assali, part of the urban sprawl of Damascus, not far from the city's main train station at Qadam. An assault by regime forces in Daraya in August saw ground troops and tanks advance into the area after four days of artillery bombardment - there were no attacks by jets.
Three months later, loyalist forces are again fighting in Daraya and seem to be facing much stiffer opposition, resorting to use of aircraft. Attack helicopters have been widely used in and around Damascus. Fighter jets have been deployed too, but more rarely.
"It is the first time I've seen bombing like this here, it means we are getting closer to the big battle for Damascus," said a city resident.
Opposition and government sources say fighting around the southern suburbs has been heavy, each claiming to have inflicted substantial losses on the other.
Activists in Daraya say more than 150 people, mainly civilians, have been killed by regime forces there in the last 20 days.
In an internet posting, activists said eight tanks had been destroyed by rebels yesterday morning. The claims could not be independently confirmed.
State run media has given no casualty figure, saying only that a large number of terrorists have been "eliminated". But it too is now referring to the conflict as deepening.
Sana, the official news agency cited information minister, Umran Zaubie, as saying the struggle in Syria was now in its "most complex stages".
According to the Sana report, Mr Zaubie said the conflict was at its "highest and most difficult and violent points, and its widest in terms of geography, type of weapons used and all security and military standards".
He, nevertheless, predicted government forces would prevail, saying Syria was united against its enemies. Regime officials say they are fighting a foreign-instigated, armed conspiracy, not a widespread grassroots uprising for more political freedoms that only turned violent in response to regime repression.
Mr Zaubie made the remarks at a memorial service for Mohammad Al Ashran, a journalist with the pro-government Ikhbariya television channel who was killed while working in Deir Ezzor. Rebels hold much of the oil-rich eastern desert province.
Also yesterday, a Syrian military air raid killed and wounded dozens of people when it hit an olive oil press near the northern city of Idlib, activists said. Activist Tareq Abdelhaq said at least 20 people were killed and 50 wounded in the attack.
* With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse