- - Monday, August 27, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian forces backed by helicopter gunships killed at least 35 people, including children, as they battled rebels on a new front in and around east Damascus on Monday, a monitoring group said.

Rebels from the Free Syrian Army claimed to have downed a military helicopter in the district of Qaboon during heavy shelling and fierce fighting that also engulfed nearby Jubar as well as several towns outside the capital.

In a major diplomatic development for the opposition, French President Francois Hollande in Paris called on regime foes to form a provisional government, saying France would recognize it immediately. His announcement, in a speech to France’s ambassadors, amounts to an attempt to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad amid escalating bloodshed in the country.

In the single deadliest incident, 12 people including children died in shelling in the town of Zamalka on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

An amateur video distributed by the Britain-based watchdog showed several bloodied bodies, some with their hands bound with rope, on the ground in a small room.

“It’s forbidden for the regime to kill us with chemical weapons,” said the unidentified activist recording the video, in a reference to Western warnings to Mr. Assad against using his chemical weapons.

“But they can kill us with bombs.”

“Effectively the army is going from west to east around Damascus, while we are trying to get back into the city, this time in a more organized way,” said a rebel commander who identified himself as Selim.

The increasingly brutal conflict, which had been largely concentrated in the provinces, first reached Damascus with a vengeance last month when fierce battles erupted across the southern belt of the capital. Troops then launched a major offensive on districts seized by rebels, claiming to have the city back under its control on Aug. 4.

Rebels have since used hit-and-run tactics in the capital, waging what analysts have described as urban guerrilla warfare against the militarily superior but thinly stretched army.

Selim said that after launching a major offensive on the southwestern belt last week, including a “massacre” in the town of Daraya, the army is focusing on the Ghuta area in the countryside east of Damascus.

Ghuta is home to some of the strongest rebel groups, Selim said, including one behind a Damascus bomb attack last month that killed four top security chiefs, including Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, in a major blow to the regime.

In what would be another coup for regime foes, a rebel brigade claimed it had shot down an army helicopter in Damascus,. The claim comes two weeks after rebels said they had downed a warplane in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

“It was in revenge for the Daraya massacre,” Omar al-Qabooni, a spokesman for the rebel Badr Battalion, said via Skype.



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