- Associated Press - Sunday, January 13, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian fighter jets on Sunday bombed Damascus suburbs in a government offensive to dislodge rebels from strategic areas around the capital, activists said, as clashes raged around army bases and airfields in the country’s north.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes were hitting towns and villages around the capital, while regime forces targeted other neighborhoods with artillery and mortars. At least nine people were killed when a shell hit eastern Ghouta district, the group said.

Also Sunday, Turkish state media said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s fighter jets bombed the Syrian town of Azaz near the Turkish border.

At least 34 Syrians wounded in the airstrikes were brought across the border to the Turkish province of Kilis for treatment, the state-run Anadolu agency said. Seven died of the injuries, the report said.

The Observatory said troops were battling rebels in the suburb of Daraya a day after government officials claimed the army had taken much of the strategic area, which lies on the edge of a major military air base southwest of the capital.

In northern Syria, government forces were fighting rebels over an air base and the international airport of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The airport includes a military base.

Syrian troops have been pushing since November to regain Daraya, which had a population of about 200,000 before the fighting. Thousands have fled the relentless violence, among more than 2 million Syrians who have been internally displaced during the civil war. At least a half-million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Because of its strategic location, rebel control of the Daraya poses a particularly grave threat to the capital.

The suburb is flanked by the key districts of Mazzeh, home to a military air base, and Kfar Sousseh, where the government headquarters, the General Security intelligence agency head office and the Interior Ministry are located.

While Mr. Assad’s loyalists appear to have an upper hand on the Damascus front because of the regime’s air power, the rebels dealt the government a major blow in the north by capturing a sprawling air base in Idlib province on Friday.

Rebels retained control of the Taftanaz base Sunday and intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport in Aleppo, Syria‘s largest city, activists said.

Among the rebels taking part in the battle are fighters from Jabhat al-Nustra, an Islamist group that the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization. Washington said the group, among the most organized and effective rebel forces on the ground, is affiliated with al Qaeda.

Syrian official statements regularly play up the role of Islamist militants in the civil war and refer to the rebels as terrorists.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since the revolt started almost two years ago.

Heavy fighting was reported Sunday in the northern province of Deir el-Zour, involving attacks by warplanes, activists said.

Last month the international aid group Doctors Without Borders said tens of thousands of Syrians, many of them wounded, are trapped in Deir el-Zour.

In Aleppo, where rebels fought troops to a stalemate last year, the two sides clashed near the air force intelligence building in the Zahra neighborhood.

The state-run SANA news agency said an army unit killed “a number of terrorists and destroyed a convoy of cars that was transporting weapons, ammunition and terrorists” in Deir el-Zour.

Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi formed a ministerial committee to conduct dialogue with opposition groups, SANA reported. The dialogue is part of efforts to implement a peace plan Mr. Assad outlined in a speech a week ago.

In his first address to the nation in six months, Mr. Assad rejected international calls to step down and offered to oversee a national reconciliation conference, while rejecting any talks with the armed opposition and vowing to continue fighting them.

The speech was condemned by the U.S. and its Western and Gulf Arab allies, while Mr. Assad’s backers in Russia and Iran said his proposal should be considered.

In a rare demonstration in Damascus, dozens of protesters staged a sit-in at the Justice Ministry on Sunday, demanding the minister move against merchants who activists claim are trying to profit from the crisis by raising prices of cooking gas, flour and bread.

Food prices have soared in the past year in Syria as the value of the local currency plummeted because of the conflict and an international ban on oil exports.

• Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this article.

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