x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Syria back online but fighting flares around Damascus

Syrian state TV said troops were fighting against fighters from the militant Jabhat Al Nusra group in areas around the airport and that many of the rebels were killed, including two Iraqi citizens.

The Syrian army shelled the outskirts of Damascus yesterday in a campaign to establish a secure perimeter around the capital, while the internet came back online after two days of outages.

As government forces and rebels fighters clashed near the airport, the opposition took steps towards choosing a prime minister to lead a government-in-waiting after three days of talks in Cairo.

Former prime minister Riad Hijab, a longtime apparatchik in President Bashar Al Assad's Baath party before he defected in August, is the strongest candidate for the job, delegates said. Mr Hijab, who is backed by Jordan and Gulf states, is likely to be chosen before or during a gathering in mid-December of the Friends of Syria, according to coalition insiders.

But western governments are reluctant to supply weapons to the opposition and rebels because they fear the influence of Islamists in the opposition.

The transitional government would fill the void should Bashar Al Assad fall, but his regime has hit back against rebels with a military campaign near Damascus over the last three days.

In the latest fighting, rebels and the army clashed in towns just south of the capital, including Aqraba, Beit Saham and Yalda near the airport.

Syrian state TV said troops were fighting against fighters from the militant Jabhat Al Nusra group in areas around the airport and that many of the rebels were killed, including two Iraqi citizens. Syria's information ministry said the airport was operating as usual and that the road leading to the facility is "totally secure". The road was closed on Thursday because of heavy fighting, but authorities reopened the main artery to the airport Friday after troops secured the area, activists said.

But the 27-kilometre motorway remained perilous a day after troops said they had reopened the key link to the outside world in heavy fighting that followed deadly fire on a bus carrying airport staff and at least two attacks on United Nations convoys, a watchdog said.

The Observatory also reported clashes in the southern Damascus neighbourhoods of Tadamon and Hajar Aswad, which have been hit by heavy fighting for weeks as the rebels try to push back into the city. Government troops were also heavily shelling the Damascus suburb of Douma, local activist Mohammed Saeed said.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there had been intermittent battles from early morning between Damascus and the international airport. "The army used warplanes, helicopter gunships and tanks to shell several villages in that area ... the army's operation to secure that area has continued."

Residents received a boost, however, as the internet returned after being offline for more than two days.

Mr Al Assad's government had been accused before of cutting internet and telephone connnections to block opposition activists and rebel communications during. Authorities had attributed the latest outage to a "terrorist" attack or a technical fault.

The 20-month crisis has also exposed divisions in neighbouring countries.

Iraq's prime minister says his country is unable to search all Syria-bound Iranian planes that fly through Iraqi airspace. But Nouri Al Maliki said yesterday that Iraq is committed to preventing weapons from being shipped through the country to Syria. US officials have accused Baghdad of allowing Syria's close ally Iran to transport arms to Syrian government forces via Iraqi airspace. Baghdad denies the allegations. Since October, the Iraqi government has forced two Iranian planes to land and be searched, but authorities say nothing illegal was found on either aircraft. Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutogl, meanwhile, said the Syrian regime has degenerated into an "armed militia" that resorts to brutality in an attempt to stay in power.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters