Assad's brother leads fresh assault

Assad's brother leads fresh assault

Maher al-Assad is head of the Fourth Brigade

Feared forces headed by President Bashar al-Assad's brother used helicopter gunships in a new offensive against rebels in Damascus on Sunday, 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 has 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 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.

“Two helicopters are pounding the Barzeh district, and towers of smoke are rising above the neighbourhood,” the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman said. “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 on Sunday 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.

Israel concern over chemical weapons

Israeli leaders said on Sunday that they were following the escalating violence in Syria for signs militants were seizing the regime’s chemical weapons or missiles, after Israel declared over the weekend that it was prepared to attack Syrian arsenals to prevent that from happening, AP reports from  Jerusalem.

The increasingly precarious situation of President Bashar Assad's regime is stoking Israeli fears that militants affiliated with Lebanon's Hezbollah or al-Qaida would raid Syrian military arsenals for chemicals weapons or sophisticated missiles that could strike Israeli territory.

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