Troops retake rebel Damascus area

Syrian troops have regained control of a rebellious neighbourhood in Damascus as more than 300 people were reported killed yesterday in a sharp escalation of the country's civil war.

Fighting has intensified over the past week as rebels closed in on the capital and launched their most serious blow yet on president Bashar Assad's inner circle, killing top aides in a bomb blast on Wednesday as they attended a security meeting.

National security chief and close Assad adviser, Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, died today of wounds suffered in the bombing, the fourth member of Mr Assad's inner circle to die in the blast, according to state-run TV.

TV also said government troops were fully in control of the rebellious Midan neighbourhood on the southern edge of Damascus, where fighting has raged for days.

The fighting in Midan and several other districts has turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighbouring Lebanon.

TV said authorities seized large quantities of weapons including machine guns, explosive belts, rocket-propelled grenades and communications equipment.

Damascus activist Khaled al-Shami, contacted via Skype, said rebels carried out a "tactical" retreat early today to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces.

Even though Mr Assad's powerful military remains mostly loyal - suggesting a total collapse may not be imminent - the rebels appeared to be making startling gains in recent weeks.

Activists reported that 310 people were killed in violence nationwide yesterday, making it the single deadliest day of fighting since the revolt began.

Besides the fighting in Damascus, about a half-dozen rebels took over a Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim yesterday, said the Iraqi army. In addition, amateur video posted online showed rebels taking over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stamped on portraits of Mr Assad.