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Germany expels four Syrian diplomats as fighting rages

Germany expels diplomats in drive to further cut ties with the president, Bashar Al Assad, as gun battles erupt in Damascus and jets bomb city suburbs.

DAMASCUS //Germany yesterday expelled four Syrian diplomats in a drive to further cut ties with the president, Bashar Al Assad, as gun battles erupted in Damascus and jets bombed city suburbs.

"With the expulsion of the four embassy employees announced today, we are sending a clear message that we are reducing relations with the Assad regime to an absolute minimum," the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said.

During the day, Syrian troops fought rebels in Sheikh Mohiuddin, a Damascus neighbourhood on the slopes of Qassiun Mountain.

Sana, the state run news agency, said 10 "terrorists" were killed there, with another 45 killed in operations on the outskirts of Damascus.

Military jets carried out a series of attacks on Daraya, on the city's southern edge, where rebels have, for weeks, battled the elite forces loyal to Mr Al Assad tasked with defending the capital.

Other neighbourhoods, including Qadam, Moadamiya and Hajar Aswad - part of the urban sprawl that forms a broad belt around the capital - witnessed skirmishes and heavy shelling.

Residents in these neighbourhoods said they have been without regular electricity, water and communications for days, while diesel, used for heating homes, is in short supply.

Many families have fled to safer areas, adding to bread shortages and soaring black market prices, with the distribution of goods and services unable to keep up with a population in rapid flux.

The economic effects of the civil war and international sanctions against Syria imposed by the West and some Arab states, were detailed in a report yesterday by the Institute for International Finance.

It said inflation was running at 40 per cent, that the Syrian economy would shrink by 20 per cent this year and that hard currency reserves would probably be depleted by the end of next year.

Rebels also fought troops near the towns of Sahnaya and Kisweh, on the main motorway running north-south between Damascus and Deraa, the city where the uprising began in March last year.

For almost two hours yesterday, machine-gun fire and mortar explosions shook the area, about 15 kilometres south of Damascus and home to a series of military bases, including a major supply depot.

Rebels, seeking to increase pressure on Mr Al Assad and his forces, have been targeting military installations and, apparently with some success, seizing munitions vital to sustaining their own war effort.

Air strikes were also reported by activists in the Ghouta, to the east of Damascus, parts of which are held by the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of activists, said at least 45 people had been killed yesterday.

Fighting now frequently cuts the main roads into and out of Damascus. On Sunday, a bomb that exploded near the last checkpoint dividing the city centre from the restive outer rim closed the motorway for hours.

Subsequent overnight attacks by rebels further south also led to the motorway being shut and have added to a growing sense of claustrophobia among Damascus residents. The airport road has effectively been closed to civilian traffic since it was declared a combat zone by the FSA last week.

psands@thenational.ae

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