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Syrian troops battle rebels in Damascus suburbs

  • Article by: BARBARA SURK
  • Associated Press
  • December 19, 2012 - 5:10 AM

BEIRUT - Syrian government forces are carrying out a broad offensive against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, the state media said Wednesday, while the opposition said it made advances in a Palestinian refugee camp nearby where its fighters have been battling with a pro-regime faction.

The state-run SANA news agency said Wednesday that troops have killed "scores of terrorists" — the government term for the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

The suburbs of the Syrian capital have been opposition strongholds since the uprising started in March 2011. The rebels have recently made significant advances in in the area, capturing air bases and military installation and clashing with a pro-government Palestinian group for control of the Yarmouk refugee camp, located in the capital's southern part.

SANA said Wednesday's fighting was taking place in the capital's southern outskirts of Daraya, Harasta, Douma and Hajar Aswad, a neighboring area of Yarmouk.

On Tuesday, Syrian fighter jets bombed Yarmouk for the second time in a week, sending thousands fleeing from the camp.

There were no reports on casualties from those strikes. Similar airstrikes on Sunday killed at least eight people in Yarmouk, activists said.

The rebel offensive in the camp, which began Friday, is aimed at driving out a pro-government Palestinian gunmen of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

Most of the fighting on Wednesday was concentrated on surrounding districts outside the camp, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said the rebels took control of large parts of the camp after resistance from the PFLP-GC gunmen ceased early Wednesday. The group relies on reports from activists on the ground.

When the revolt against Assad's rule began 21 months ago, the half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria stayed on the sidelines. But as the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups — such as the PFLP-GC_ have been fighting alongside the troops. The group is led by Ahmed Jibril, Assad's longtime ally.

The fighting in the camp has forced an exodus of Palestinian refugees and Syrians who came to the camp in past weeks to escape violence elsewhere in the city, according to United Nations officials.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement Wednesday he had asked U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to help in bringing the Palestinian refugees in Syrian to the Palestinian territories. This could include the West Bank, where Abbas governs, or the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The statement said there are 450,000 Palestinian refugees living in 10 camps in Syria. Abbas said Yarmouk, which is the biggest camp, "has been through a difficult situation due to the escalating conflict in Syria."

Any movement of refugees into the West Bank would need the consent of Israel.

Israel's Foreign Ministry had no comment.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

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