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Beirut (AFP) Nov 29, 2012
Syrian troops Thursday evening launched a major offensive in southeastern Damascus along the airport road, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after earlier reporting the route had been closed.
The army attacked rebel strongholds in a string of towns along the highway and near the airport, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone. State media also reported operations in the area.
The fighting, which came after Internet links went down across most of Syria, caused EgyptAir and Emirates to announce the cancellation of flights to Damascus.
The heaviest clashes erupted between troops and rebels in the towns of Babila and Hujaira southeast of the capital and in Harran al-Awamid, just east of the airport, the Observatory said, adding that army reinforcements had been sent to the area.
Official media also reported operations in the province and said several members of an "armed terrorist group, Al-Nusra Front" had been killed in the town of Aqraba.
The army also went on the offensive across the eastern outer belt of the capital, notably in the towns of Harasta and Douma and in Eastern Ghuta, the Observatory said.
Technology companies which monitor web traffic reported Thursday that Syria was effectively cut off from the Internet.
Akamai, one of the firms which monitors global traffic, said traffic stopped from 1026 GMT, and that this supports the observation from another IT firm, Renesys, "that Syria is effectively off the Internet."
According to activists, sudden communication cuts regularly occur before major military offensives.
An EgyptAir official in Cairo said the airline had cancelled its Friday flight to Damascus because of deteriorated security at the airport and a breakdown in communication with its office there.
In Dubai, Emirates said it suspended flights to Damascus after the airport road was blocked by the clashes.
"Emirates has suspended all flights to and from Damascus effective immediately and until further notice," a spokesperson for the company said.
Regime forces have regularly carried out air strikes on this area, in an attempt to dislodge rebels from their rear bases in the orchards on the outskirts of the capital.
The goal of the army is to take full control of the capital and a radius of eight kilometers (five miles) around it, a Syrian security official told AFP.
The authorities in the morning closed the airport road, located 27 kilometres (17 miles) from the centre of Damascus, and which passes through the embattled Eastern Ghouta region.
Turkey president says Syrian attack unlikely
He was speaking a day after a team of NATO experts began a survey of sites near the Syrian border that would serve as suitable locations for the deployment of US-made Patriot missiles.
"I honestly think that a direct threat against Turkey by Syria is unlikely because that would be madness," Gul was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.
Gul said the deployment would be for defensive purposes only, calling it a "precautionary measure" to minimise any dangers emanating from Syria.
"An attack (by Turkey on Syria) is out of the question," he added.
Turkey turned to its NATO allies and placed an official request last week for the deployment of Patriot missiles after a series of cross-border shellings, including an attack that left five civilians dead.
NATO has yet to formally respond to the request, but the US ambassador to Turkey for one said Washington backed the bid.
"We look favourably on this. Other members of NATO look favourably on it," ambassador Francis Ricciardone said Wednesday.
But the Syrian regime's allies Russia and Iran are deeply opposed to the move, fearing such a deployment could spark broader conflict.
It is not yet clear where and how many Patriots would be deployed, but possible locations include the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakir or Sanliurfa or Malatya in the east, which already hosts an early warning radar as part of NATO's missile defence system.
Local media said Turkey asked NATO to deploy up to 20 Patriot missiles but that the alliance could only offer eight to 10.
Ankara has been strengthening its defences along the border with anti-aircraft batteries and tanks since June 22, when one of its F4 fighter jets was downed by Syria along with two pilots for a brief violation of Syrian airspace.
Last month, Syrian shells fired across the border killed five Turkish civilians including three children, prompting border units to retaliate.
After both incidents, Ankara asked the NATO military alliance to take measures to protect its border and contain the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 40,000 people in 20 months and sent more than 120,000 refugees into Turkey.
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