Syrian rebels launched a fierce offensive close to Damascus airport, as the country suffered a widespread information blackout, with internet and mobile services going down.
In an operation optimistically titled “Dawn on the Horizon”, rebels fought in pitched battles with regime troops around three miles from the airport, capturing roads and briefly blocking the main airport highway activists said.
“They [rebels] have been inching closer to the airport for the last few days,” said Louay Sakka, vice chair of the Syrian Support Group, who said he was in direct contact with some of the fighting brigades.
The fighting forced airlines, including EgyptAir and Emirates to cancel flights to Damascus, citing the “deteriorating situation” around the airport.
Two Austrian soldiers from a UN peacekeeping force were wounded when their convoy came under fire near the airport, the defence ministry said in Vienna.
Fighting centred in the towns of Babila and Hujaira southeast of the capital and in Harran al-Awamid, just east of the airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that army reinforcements had been sent to the area.
Separate troops were sent back into largely rebel held districts of Eastern Ghouta and Douma, in a “cleansing operation” to subdue the insurgents.
Opposition member Mr Sakka said this was the start of a major showdown for control of the capital, but which was likely still to take several weeks.
“The Free Syrian Army are now killing about 50 to 70 shabiha [government paramilitaries] per day. So the regime called a national draft to ask people to join the army but they are only getting a small response”.
As the fighting continued residents reported internet connections in the capital were down and mobile and land telephone lines working only sporadically in what appeared to be the worst disruption to communications in Syria since an uprising began 20 months ago.
Omran al-Zu’bi, the Syrian information minister, claimed armed terrorist groups had blown up a communication and internet cable which led to shutting down the internet and communication system in some Syrian areas. Activists accused the government of pulling the plug on the internet.