Feared forces launch new assault on Syria capital

Feared forces headed by President Bashar al-Assad's brother used helicopter gunships in a new offensive against rebels in Damascus today, as fighting also raged in Syria's second city Aleppo.

The Fourth Brigade headed by Maher al-Assad was leading the assault in the Damascus district of Barzeh, triggering a mass exodus of residents from the area, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based rights watchdog put the overall death toll from the 16-month uprising in Syria at more than 19,000 -- the vast majority of them civilians.

In Damascus, the official news agency SANA said government forces had "cleansed" the Qaboon neighbourhood of "terrorists," the regime's term for rebel fighters.

State television ran footage reportedly from Qaboon showing dead bodies as well as weapons, communications equipment and money it said was captured from insurgents.
The Observatory said regime troops had launched an assault on the Barzeh district of Damascus.

"Troops have stormed the northwestern Barzeh district of Damascus with tanks and armed personnel carriers," the group said, noting snipers had been deployed on rooftops.

"Two helicopters are pounding the Barzeh district, and towers of smoke are rising above the neighbourhood," the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. "The deployment in Barzeh is very heavy."

"Barzeh is being stormed by the feared Fourth Brigade," Abdel Rahman added, noting that dozens of residents were fleeing the neighbourhood.

Regime forces also deployed in the outskirts of the Mazzeh district of the capital, he said, adding one person was killed there today and several were wounded.

Meanwhile, fierce clashes engulfed the districts of Salaheddin and Sakhur in Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub in the north which has seen heavy fighting since Friday, said Abdel Rahman.

The army's assault on Salaheddin began at dawn, in a bid to reclaim it from rebel hands, an anti-regime activist in the city told AFP.

"Violent clashes have been taking place since the early morning," the activist said on condition of anonymity.

The fighting came a day after rebel forces battled troops along the borders with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, seeking to hold or gain control over crossing posts.

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