- Last Updated: 2:46 PM, July 20, 2012
- Posted: 10:21 AM, July 20, 2012
DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian troops and tanks on Friday drove rebels from a Damascus neighborhood where some of the heaviest of this week's fighting in the capital left cars gutted and fighters' bodies in the streets.
More than 300 people were killed in a single day, activists said, as the military struggles to regain momentum after a stunning bombing against the regime's leadership.
A fourth member of President Bashar Assad's inner circle, national security chief Gen. Hisham Ikhtiyar, died of wounds he suffered in Wednesday's bomb blast, which went off during a high level security meeting in Damascus, the government announced.
The bombing has been a resounding blow to Assad, killing his defense minister and his influential brother-in-law along with another security official, all central to directing the crackdown on the uprising against his rule.
The blast, six days of sustained fighting in neighborhoods across the heart of the capital and the fall of several border posts into rebel hands have pointed to the unraveling of Assad's grip on power amid an uprising that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring but became increasingly militarized as the opposition took up arms.
Regime troops regained control of the district of Midan in the southern part of Damascus on Friday and eagerly took journalists on a tour to prove it. But rebels launched new fighting in several other districts of the capital, activists said.
The fighting came as Muslims around much of the world began marking Islam's annual Ramadan fast, abstaining from food or drink from sunrise to sunset. In a sign of the increasing sectarian split in Syria, the mainly Sunni opposition said it was starting the fast on Friday, along with Saudi Arabia and most Sunni-led Arab nations. The regime, meanwhile, said it would begin Saturday, as is its ally, Shiite-led Iran.
Battles involving troops bringing in tanks, helicopters and mortars have turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighboring Lebanon.
"Our heroic forces have completely cleansed the Midan area of the terrorist mercenaries," state TV announced, employing the term used by authorities to refer to rebels. It 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 Friday to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces.