BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops backed by helicopter gunships clashed with rebels Saturday as government forces pushed a major offensive on villages and towns near the capital's international airport, activists said, as Internet and cellular telephones were cut nationwide for a third consecutive day.
The fighting over the past few weeks in Damascus is the worst to hit the capital since July, when rebels captured several neighborhoods before a quick government counteroffensive swept out the opposition fighters. Anti-government activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the country's crisis, which began with pro-democracy protests but has morphed into a civil war, began in March last year.
Activists said forces loyal to President Bashar Assad were battling rebels in towns just south of the capital, including Aqraba, Beit Saham and Yalda near the airport. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said many were feared killed in government shelling of Beit Saham.
Syrian state TV said troops were fighting against fighters from the al-Qaida-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra group in areas around the airport and that many of the rebels were killed, including two Iraqi citizens.
Syria's Information Ministry said the airport was operating as usual and that the road leading to the facility is "totally secure." The road was closed Thursday because of heavy fighting, but authorities reopened the main artery to the airport Friday after troops secured the area, activists said.
The Observatory also reported clashes in the southern Damascus neighborhoods of Tadamon and Hajar Aswad, which have been hit by heavy fighting for weeks as the rebels try to push back into the city.
Government troops were also heavily shelling the Damascus suburb of Douma, local activist Mohammed Saeed said via Skype.
Saeed was using a satellite telephone to connect to the Internet since the network and cellular telephones were cut Thursday. The government and the opposition blame each other for the outage
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the Internet will mostly likely be cut until "military operations around the airport are over." He said some rebels use smart telephones to communicate via Skype as well as normal telephone calls.
In the past, the regime has cut telephone lines and cellular networks in areas where military operations are under way, but the current blackout is the first to cover the whole country since the 20-month crisis began.
In neighboring Lebanon, tensions were running high in the northern city of Tripoli Saturday between supporters and opponents of Assad's regime, which is dominated by the president's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Lebanese troops deployed to potential flashpoints in the city, which boasts significant Sunni and Alawite populations and has been hit by deadly violence in recent months between the two communities, to prevent possible clashes.
The army dispatched troops to Tripoli as a precautionary measure after an announcement Friday that 20 Lebanese Sunnis had been killed inside Syria while fighting alongside rebels, who are predominantly Sunnis as well. The city was clam Saturday.
It was not clear when the funerals will be held as the bodies of the dead are still in Syria, Lebanese security officials said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Lebanon is particularly vulnerable to getting sucked into the conflict in Syria. The countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon, a country plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the uprising in Syria began, and deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Assad Lebanese groups have erupted on several occasions.
In Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the Syrian regime has degenerated into an "armed militia" that resorts to brutality in an attempt to stay in power. Davutoglu spoke Saturday at an Istanbul meeting attended by Arab foreign ministers who expressed opposition to the Syrian government.
Davutoglu and other delegates at the one-day conference say the Syrian regime is a threat not only to its people but also to peace and security in the region.
Turkey was one of Syria's strongest allies before the crisis began but turned into one of its harshest critics because of Assad's crackdown.