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Syria Blackout Enters Day 2

BEIRUT (WSJ): Syria’s regime bolstered its military presence around Damascus on Friday and stepped up attacks on opposition strongholds around the capital, several activists said, but details of conflict were sparse as the country remained under an Internet blackout for a second day.

Damascus’s international airport remained closed, with all six scheduled flights suspended, according to flight-tracking websites. Commercial flights to the airport were halted Thursday afternoon amid reports of heavy fighting near the main highway connecting the airport to the capital.

The airport road was open Friday but fighting raged between opposition rebels and regime forces in towns located in the vicinity, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization with a network of activists in Syria.

Free Syrian Army fighters controlled most of the area within 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) from the airport, said FSA Major Maher al-Nuaimi, reached in Turkey. “The regime has lost control of the area,” he said.

Air Force planes bombed rebel positions near the airport Friday, according to the Syrian observatory and other activists, who also reported heavy shelling from nearly every province from Aleppo to Homs and Daraya, a suburb of Damascus.

Opposition and rights groups that are typically in constant communication with their network on the ground said their contact had been limited by disrupted Internet and cellphone service. Syria’s Internet, which is controlled by the Syrian government, went down across the country Thursday. Some Syrians were able to send reports and video to activists outside the country, according to Beirut-based Syrian activists.

A video posted Friday on YouTube showed heavy smoke billowing from the horizon in Damascus. There was heavy military deployment around Damascus and extra checkpoints at the city’s entrance and across various neighborhoods, said three Beirut-based activists in contact with Syrians, an assessment corroborated by Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a newly formed opposition umbrella group.

“The regime doesn’t want what happened in Aleppo to happen in Damascus—for the rebels to get the suburbs and then eventually enter the city,” said Mr. Ziadeh.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether President Bashar al-Assad had launched the major offensive most opposition groups feared was looming. Many analysts said the 20-month uprising in Syria was entering a critical stage where the regime and opposition rebels would be fighting over access to Damascus. It is widely believed that if Mr. Assad’s control over Syria would slip considerably if he loses control of Damascus.

Japan hosted Friday a meeting of Friends of the Syrian People coalition to discuss more severe sanctions on Syria’s government and foster an economic plan for a post-Assad era.

Representatives from about 60 countries were present, including the U.S. and European Union, calling on the international community to “increase pressure on the Syrian regime by implementing and enforcing measures to deny it access to the resources needed for its violent campaign against its own population,” a joint statement said.

Current sanctions include a freeze on the assets of Assad and other Syrian government leaders, along with an embargo on oil and arms trade. No new sanctions were announced at the meeting.

Officials said the delegates discussed how the international community could help Syria recover and rebuild after its post-Assad transition has begun. They didn’t release details of what such measures might include.

Meanwhile in Syria on Friday, several antiregime demonstrations of a few hundred people erupted after prayer services around noon in towns of Bansh, Sarmeen, Kfarnabal and Maarat Masreen, according to videos on YouTube.

Violence from Syria also spilled over into Lebanon on Friday evening, when clashes broke out between Assad opponents and supporters in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Tensions were sparked when Lebanese media reported 17 Lebanese Sunni Islamists from Tripoli had been killed in an ambush in Syria on Friday as they were fighting alongside opposition rebels.

Published Date: Friday, November 30th, 2012 | 08:12 PM

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