In this photo taken during a government-organized tour, Syrian soldiers gather after they regained control of the district of Midan, in the southern part of Damascus, Syria, Friday, July 20, 2012. Syrian troops and tanks on Friday drove rebels from a Damascus neighborhood where some of the heaviest of this week’s fighting in the capital left cars gutted and fighters’ bodies in the streets. Hundreds of people were killed in a single day, activists said, as the military struggles to regain momentum after a stunning bombing against the regime’s leadership. AP/Bassem Tellawi
DAMASCUS, Syria—Syrian troops regained control of a rebellious neighborhood in Damascus on Friday as more than 300 people were reported killed the day before in a sharp escalation of the country’s civil war.
Activists reported that 310 people were killed in violence nationwide on Thursday, making it the single deadliest day of fighting since the revolt began.
Fighting has intensified over the past week as rebels closed in on the capital and launched their most serious blow yet on President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, killing top aides in a bomb blast on Wednesday as they attended a security meeting.
National security chief and close Assad adviser, Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, died on Friday of wounds suffered in the bombing, the fourth member of Assad’s inner circle to die in the blast, according to state-run TV.
State-run TV also said on Friday that government troops were fully in control of the rebellious Midan neighborhood on the southern edge of Damasacus, where fighting had raged for days.
The fighting in Midan and several other districts turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighboring Lebanon.
“Our heroic forces have completely cleansed the Midan area from the terrorist mercenaries,” the TV said, using the term used by authorities to refer to rebels. It said authorities seized large quantities of weapons including machine guns, explosive belts, rocket-propelled grenades and communications equipment.
Damascus activist Khaled al-Shami, contacted via Skype, said rebels carried out a “tactical” retreat to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes.
Eager to show that authorities were in control, the government took local journalists for a trip to Midan inside two armored personal carriers on Friday.
Scenes of destruction
An Associated Press reporter on the trip saw scenes of destruction, including dozens of damaged or charred cars, stores with shattered windows, and the corpses of at least six young men on the street. One of them, near the Saeed Bin Zeid Mosque, appeared to have been shot in the chest.
“The Mosque of the Free” was written in red graffiti on the mosque’s outer wall.
Garbage littered the streets, shops were closed and the streets were almost deserted.
The violence in heavily guarded Damascus, seat of Assad’s power, pointed to an unraveling of his grip on power amid an uprising that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring but became increasingly militarized as the opposition took up arms.
Even though Assad’s powerful military remains mostly loyal—suggesting a total collapse may not be imminent—the rebels appeared to be making startling gains in recent weeks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday’s death toll included at least 93 government troops. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees said 217 civilians were killed.
The figures could not be independently verified because of severe restrictions on journalists in Syria.
Besides the fighting in Damascus, about a half dozen rebels took over a Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim on Thursday, said Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Dulaimi. There are four major border posts with Iraq.
Rebels overtook a Syrian army outpost near the Syrian-Iraq border after clashes that killed 21 Syrian soldiers, he added.
In addition, amateur video posted online showed rebels taking over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stomped on portraits of Assad. The Associated Press could not independently verify the video because the government bars most media from working independently in the country.
A Turkish official based in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the border gate of Bab al-Hawa, confirmed that the rebels had taken control of the frontier crossing.
Another official said Turkey had temporarily closed the border gate “for security reasons.” Both spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules that bar civil servants from speaking to journalists without authorization.
Friday’s clashes followed a deadly day of fighting across Syria, which the Observatory said killed 302 people, the highest daily toll since the uprising against Assad’s regime began more than 16 months ago.
22 soldiers executed
An AFP photographer reported that fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fought a raging battle with Syrian troops at Bab al-Hawa and that some 150 rebel fighters were on Friday in control of the crossing.
Rebels sacked the border post, which was bloodstained and riddled with bullets. They also looted Turkish lorries caught up in the battle.
On Thursday, Iraq’s deputy interior minister Adnan al-Assadi said the FSA had seized control of all crossings along their common border.
He said Iraqi border guards had seen FSA fighters detain a Syrian lieutenant colonel and cut off his arms and legs. “Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers.”
‘Ramadan of victory’
General Ikhtiyar died of wounds he suffered two days after a bombing at National Security headquarters killed three other top security officials.
Defense Minister Gen. Daoud Rajha, Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and Gen. Hassan Turkmani, head of the regime’s crisis cell on the uprising, were all killed in the explosion.
Activists have called for fresh antiregime demonstrations after the regular weekly prayers on Friday under the slogan “The Ramadan of victory will be written in Damascus.”
Damascus dismissed comments by Russia’s envoy to Paris that Assad is ready to give up power.
“The comments attributed to the Russian ambassador to Paris on the fact that President Assad would agree to relinquish power in a civilized manner are totally baseless,” state television said.
The denial came after Alexander Orlov told Radio France International that Assad was ready to cede power but only in a “civilized manner.” With a report from New York Times News Service