Government on offensive outside Syria's capital

Associated Press
This image made from amateur video released by Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows smoke rises in Damascus, Syria, Friday, June 21, 2013. The commander of Syria's rebels confirms they have received new weapons, giving his forces more power in battles against government troops and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Gen. Salim Idris refused to say in an interview with Al-Jazeera TV Friday where the weapons came from. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)
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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces stepped up their attack against rebel strongholds north of the capital Damascus on Saturday, while opposition fighters declared their own offensive in the country's largest city Aleppo.

Both sides intensified operations as an 11-nation group that includes the U.S., dubbed the Friends of Syria, began meeting in Qatar to discuss how to coordinate military and other aid to the rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Friends of Syria agreed on Saturday to do more to help the embattled rebels trying to overthrow Assad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said. While he offered no specifics about stepped-up military and humanitarian aid, Kerry said the assistance would help change the balance on the battlefield.

Kerry also denounced Assad for inviting Iranian and Hezbollah fighters to fight alongside his troops, saying the Syrian president risked turning the civil war into a regional sectarian conflict.

The fighting in Damascus came as the Syrian government announced salary increases to state employees and members of the military, days after the Syrian currency dipped to a record low of 210 pounds to the dollar compared with 47 when the crisis began more than two years ago. The raise also covered pensions.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on an extensive network of activists in Syria, said the shelling of the district of Qaboun has killed three children, including two from the same family, since Friday.

Activists reported heavy shelling on many fronts on districts north of Damascus, apparently an attempt to cut links between rebel-held districts that have served as launching pads for operations against the capital.

The Lebanese TV station Al-Mayadeen, which had a reporter embedded with Syrian government forces in the offensive, quoted a military official as saying that the operation aims to cut rebel supply lines, separate one group from another, and secure the northern entrances to the capital. The regime's forces have struggled for months to regain control of these suburbs.

The Observatory said the neighborhood was being attacked from several different sides, while the shelling has caused structural damage and started fires. Activists from Qaboun posted on Facebook that government forces had brought up new tanks to reinforce its positions outside the neighborhood, and the bombardment had brought buildings down.

The Observatory said rebels targeted a police academy in the nearby Barzeh area Saturday, pushing back against a government attempt to storm the neighborhood. One rebel was killed in overnight fighting, it said.

State news agency SANA said troops "inflicted heavy losses" among rebels in several suburbs of Damascus.

A recent declaration by the U.S. that it had conclusive evidence that President Bashar Assad's regime used chemical weapons on a small scale against opposition forces prompted Washington to authorize the arming of rebels, a major shift in policy. The decision also followed advances by the government forces aided by fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Rebels say they have already received new weapons from allied countries— but not the U.S. — that they claim will help them to shift the balance of power on the ground. Experts and activists said the new weapons include anti-tank missiles and small quantities of anti-aircraft missiles.

It was not clear if any of the new weapons have made it to the Damascus area. A spokesman for one of the main groups fighting outside of Damascus, the al-Islam brigade, said his group had none of the new weapons. The spokesman, who declined to be named for fear of government reprisals, spoke to The Associated Press through Skype.

He said government forces were shelling Barzeh from Qasioun mountain overlooking Damascus. Syria's main Western-backed opposition group said Thursday that 40,000 civilians in the two northern districts of Damascus are suffering from shortages of food and medical supplies.

Rebels and government also clashed in and around the northern city of Aleppo, where government forces announced an offensive earlier this month. Activists said troops clashed in the southern neighborhoods of Rashideen and Hamdaniya and in the western suburbs.

The Observatory said rebels pounded a military academy in the area, causing a fire in the compound. There were no immediate reports of casualties. In Rashideen, rebel forces have pushed government forces out from parts of the neighborhood, according to the local Aleppo Media Center network and posts on Facebook.

A statement by a coalition of rebel groups, posted on the Center's page, declared that the fighters are launching a new operation to seize control of the western neighborhoods of Aleppo. Amateur showed what appeared to be intense government shelling of villages in the area.

On Saturday, a dozen shells from Syrian forces landed in a northern Lebanese border town, some landing near homes, causing a panic among residents, the Lebanese news agency reported.

Syria's official news agency said government troops were targeting a group of infiltrators across the border. It gave no further details.

Rockets from Syria fall regularly into towns and villages near the border. On Friday, a rocket slammed into a suburb of Beirut, bringing the war closer to Lebanon's bustling capital, the second in less than a month. No one claimed responsibility for that attack, but rebels in Syria have vowed to retaliate against Hezbollah's Beirut strongholds for its increasingly active role assisting Assad.

In Damascus, a presidential decree said that the raise for the public sector could reach up to 40 percent depending on the salary of the civil servant. Pensions could rise by up to 25 percent, according to the decree.

It said those who make 10,000 pounds ($54) a month will get a 40 percent raise, while who make double that amount will get a 20 percent boost. People making 40,000 pounds a month will get a 5 percent raise, it said.

Syria's 2-year civil war has killed nearly 93,000 people. It increasingly pits Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors.

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