Rebels say Damascus airport a battle zone

Rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared Damascus International Airport a battle zone on Friday, warning civilians and airlines they would approach it “at their own risk”.

Fighting around the capital city has intensified over the past week, prompting predictions among Western opponents of Assad that an endgame is approaching in a 20-month-old conflict that has killed 40,000 people.

“Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said before talks on Thursday with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, which has backed Assad.

“The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing,” Clinton said in Dublin.

Syria’s government says that is not the case, and that the army is driving rebels back from positions in the suburbs and outskirts of Damascus where they have tried to concentrate their offensive.

Many who have followed the events on the ground say talk of an endgame is overblown or premature.

“I think it’s unreasonable to expect that the battle is in its last stages right now,” said Rami Abdelrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has tracked the fighting since it began in March 2011.

“The big advances are only in the media. The situation is certainly not good, for anyone. The Syrian economy is dead. But conditions for the rebels are not good either ... Rebel-held parts of Aleppo are barely eating and are always at risk of army shelling.”
“It is true however that the regime is withdrawing from many areas... and the regime is being exhausted,” he said.

Cutting access to the airport 20 km (12 miles) from the city center would be a symbolic blow. The rebels acknowledge it is still in army hands.

“The rebel brigades who have been putting the airport under siege decided yesterday that the airport is a military zone,” said Nabil al-Amir, a spokesman for the rebels' Damascus Military Council. “The airport is now full of armored vehicles and soldiers.”
“Civilians who approach it now do so at their own risk,” he said. Fighters had “waited two weeks for the airport to be emptied of most civilians and airlines” before declaring it a target, he added.

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