Syrian rebels bog down near Damascus

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BEIRUT -- Government jets' twin airstrikes Thursday on a large, rebel-held suburb of Damascus sheered the sides off apartment towers and left residents digging through rubble for the dead and wounded.

The bombing of Douma came amid a wave of attacks on rebellious districts of the Syrian capital, part of the government's efforts to keep rebel fighters out of President Bashar Assad's seat of power. Late Thursday, a car bomb exploded at a gas station inside the city itself, killing at least nine people, activists said.

Douma, the largest patch of rebel-held ground near Damascus, shows why the opposition's advance on the capital has bogged down. Despite capturing territory and setting up committees to provide basic services, the rebels lack the firepower to challenge Mr. Assad's forces and remain helpless before his air force.

That stalemate suggests that the war will not end soon. The United Nations said Wednesday that more than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 -- a figure much higher than previous opposition estimates.

Rebels took control of Douma, a suburb of some 200,000 located nine miles northwest of Damascus, in mid-October 2011, after launching attacks on military posts throughout the city, activists said. Less than a week later, the rebels had taken over a half-dozen checkpoints and government buildings, said activist Mohammed Saeed. The army withdrew from others. "Since then, the city has been totally liberated," he said. "There are no government troops left, but we still suffer from regime airstrikes almost every day."

Today, those entering Douma must pass through rebel checkpoints at the city's main entryways. Rebels with camouflage vests and Kalashnikov rifles zip about on motorcycles, communicating by walkie-talkie. Some belong to the security brigade, an improvised police force to catch looters that works with a judicial council of Muslim clerics and lawyers who run a prison.

In November, residents formed a civilian council to provide services for the estimated one-third of Douma's residents who have not fled the violence. The council oversees committees for medical issues, bakeries, media relations and other tasks, said its head, Nizar Simadi. A former cleaner at city hall runs a cleanup crew that helps remove rubble from the streets after shell attacks and airstrikes.

The city's electricity went out in November; activists accuse the government of cutting it in revenge. But former utility employees have strung in power from nearby areas still on the government network, returning power to some of the city.

Rebel forces are now fighting the government in areas on three sides of the capital. They are closest in the south, where they have pushed into the poor Damascus neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad. Recent weeks also have seen fierce clashes in the southwestern suburb of Daraya, which the government says it is close to reclaiming.

During Thursday's airstrikes on Douma, a government fighter jet launched two bombing runs on a densely populated residential area near a prominent mosque, said Mr. Saeed, the activist. Videos posted online showed residents rushing though a smoke-filled street and loading wounded people into cars and pickup trucks.

One group provided videos of 12 people they said were killed in the attack. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the strike.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 10 rebel fighters and 32 civilians were killed Thursday in clashes, shelling and airstrikes in the province that surrounds the capital, more than anywhere else in Syria.


First Published January 4, 2013 5:00 AM


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