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Syrian forces stretched, spy chief 4th bomb victim

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle died on Friday from wounds sustained in a bomb attack this week and his forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels targeting the heart of his power.

As refugees flooded across Syria's borders and banks were reported to have run out of cash, Russia's envoy to Paris added to a sense Assad's days were numbered by saying he had accepted he would have to leave power.

Syrian state television flashed a government statement saying the comments were "completely devoid of truth" while Russia's Paris embassy said they had been taken out of context.

Assad, 46, has not spoken since Wednesday's attack on a meeting of his high command and only appeared on Thursday to appoint a new defense minister to replace one of the assassinated men.

The next few days will be critical in determining whether Assad's government can recover from the devastating blow of the bombing on Wednesday of Assad's inner circle which destroyed its aura of invulnerability.

Syrian state television said a funeral ceremony for the defense minister, his deputy - Assad's brother-in-law - and a senior general was held on Friday in Damascus, without mentioning whether Assad attended.

It also said Syria's intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar had died of wounds from the attack on Assad's close-knit six-man "crisis unit", in charge of suppressing the 16-month uprising threatening four decades of Assad's Alawite family rule.

In the latest violence in Damascus, rebels set fire to a military barracks which opposition sources said was used as a training ground for shabbiha militiamen loyal to Assad after a two-day siege, a witness said.

"The Saiqa (thunderbolt) barracks is now on fire. About 80 shabbiha and army who have been defending it have withdrawn," Abu Ilizz, a resident of the district adjacent to the Council of Ministers building, said by telephone.


The conflict has changed from an uprising in poor towns and villages to a civil war that has reached the capital.

It has become a proxy conflict pitting Russia and Shi'ite Muslim Iran, which back Assad, against Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which are arming and funding the Sunni rebels.

The rebels include the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors joined by Sunni youths, as well as al-Qaeda style Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and local pro-democracy Sunni liberals.

Clashes raged in Damascus in a sixth day in the ancient city and at least three people were killed when Syrian army helicopters fired rockets at the southeastern neighborhood of Saida Zeinab, opposition activists said.

Government forces and opponents are fighting with the ferocity of those who know what awaits them if they lose.

Rebels from elsewhere in Syria have poured into the capital for what they called "Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake" saying this would be the final battle for the city. The Syrian government also said that this would be the last battle.

"The regime is going through its last days," Abdelbasset Seida, the leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, said in Rome, predicting a dramatic escalation in violence in the 16-month-old revolt.

Clashes were fiercest overnight in the sprawling Mezzeh district, where rebels appear to be sustaining attacks on many security compounds located there, residents said.

State television said Syrian forces had cleared the central district of Midan of "mercenaries and terrorists". Opposition activists and rebels sources confirmed on Friday that they had withdrawn after coming under heavy bombardment.

"It is a tactical withdrawal. We are still in Damascus," Abu Omar, a rebel commander, said by telephone.

Adding to the sense of crisis, power in many parts of the city had been cut as temperatures rose to above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Friday.


Residents in central Damascus said shops were closed, roads were empty and only a handful of people were outside. The normally heavy traffic of the cramped Middle Eastern city was missing; only a few cars were moving along its boulevards

"We have heard reports that many of the banks have just run out of money," Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman for the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR, told a briefing in Geneva.

Residents reported a lack of government checkpoints in the heart of the city and fewer guards in front of the Interior Ministry a day after the police headquarters was burned down.

Another Syrian general fled to Turkey overnight, along with four colonels and 17 lower-ranking officers, a Turkish official said, bringing the number of generals sheltering there to 22.

Government forces struck the rebel-held Bab al-Hawa border post on the frontier with Turkey overnight and shelled the city of Abu Kamal near the main checkpoint on the border with Iraq which was seized by rebels on Thursday, the Observatory said.

On Friday, the Iraqi army erected blast walls to seal the Abu Kamal/Qaim border crossing, which is on the Euphrates River highway, one of the major trade routes across the Middle East, a Reuters photographer reported from the scene.

The Syrian side had been burned and looted and a senior Iraqi interior ministry official said it appeared to be in rebel hands. Iraqi officers said it was quiet after clashes overnight.

Other border posts further north, near the Iraqi city of Mosul, appeared to still be under Syrian government army control, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Al-Khafaji told Reuters.

Rebels said they were still in control of Bab al-Hawa and the Turkish official said the rebels held Jarablus. He said the crossings were not closed but the Turkish border guards were warning people they were unsafe and they were turning back.

Up to 30,000 Syrian refugees may have crossed into Lebanon in the past 48 hours to escape the fighting, the UNHCR said, a huge increase. There were also growing numbers fleeing to Iraq and people pouring into Jordan and Turkey, she said.

A total of 310 Syrians, including 98 security personnel, were killed on Thursday, the Observatory said, the highest daily death toll so far. The reports could not be confirmed. The

The Russian ambassador to France said he believed Assad had signaled readiness to step down when he accepted a recent international declaration which foresaw a transition towards a more democratic Syria. "That means he has accepted to leave, but in an orderly way," Alexandre Orlov told French RFI radio.

The comments drew a hasty rebuff from Damascus in a sign of the intense nervousness there.

A spokesman for the Russian embassy in France said Orlov's words were taken out of context and he had no "exclusive information about Assad's readiness to step down," Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

What Orlov meant was that Assad could leave power or stay in his post, but it was not up to the U.N. Security Council to decide, but Assad himself and the Syrian people, spokesman Sergei Barinov said, a repeat of Moscow's standard line.


Diplomatic efforts - rapidly overtaken by events on the ground - collapsed in disarray on Thursday when Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions unless Syrian authorities halted violence. Washington said the Council had "failed utterly".

China said Western diplomats were to blame for trying to ram through a draft that did not put enough pressure on opposition groups, China's official Xinhua news agency said on Friday.

In a commentary, Xinhua said the draft was not balanced and Western diplomats "displayed arrogance and inflexibility" in negotiations, effectively killing it.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the Security Council had "failed utterly", and Washington would look elsewhere for ways "to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime and to deliver assistance to those in need".

Russia criticized her comments. "I think that is a very alarming signal to all of us," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in Moscow.

The two sides were headed for a new showdown, with two new rival draft resolutions put forward for a Friday vote.

Britain proposed a four-paragraph draft that would extend the expiring mandate of the monitors for 30 days, while Pakistan, with the support of Russia, proposed a 45-day extension.



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Tags:     World News     BEIRUT (Reuters) - A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle died on Friday from wounds sustained in a bomb attack this week and his forces fought to recapture border posts and parts of Damascus from rebels targeting the heart of his power.