Middle East

Assad reportedly flees to Syria coastal town as regime forces strike back against rebels

Situation 'rapidly spinning out of control'


As Syrian forces retaliate against rebels in Damascus a day after a deadly bombing attack that killed three regime leaders, reports Thursday suggest President Bashar Assad has fled to the coastal city of Latakia.

Assad, who was noticeably absent after Wednesday's bombing, is directing the government response to his top lieutenants' deaths from the Mediterranean sea resort, Reuters reports, citing opposition sources and a Western diplomat.

"Our information is that he is at his palace in Latakia and that he may have been there for days," a senior opposition figure told Reuters.

Syria's state-run news agency showed footage of Assad attending the swearing-in of a new defense minister. It is not known where the swearing-in took place.

The whereabouts of his wife and their three young children were not known.

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Thousands of Syrians streamed across the Syrian border into Lebanon, fleeing as fighting in the capital entered its fifth straight day, witnesses said. Residents near the Masnaa crossing point -- about 25 miles from Damascus -- said hundreds of private cars as well as taxis and buses were ferrying people across.

"It is a war going on here, literally a war," said a 25-year-old woman in the Muhajereen neighborhood. The sounds of battle had kept her up all night and she stayed home from work because she feared random gunfire, she added.

"It reminded me of that night when the Americans shelled Baghdad nine years ago," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety. "I was watching it on TV, but today I'm living a very similar situation."

Russia and China again vetoed a Western-backed U.N. resolution Thursday aimed at pressuring President Bashar Assad's government to end the escalating 16-month conflict in Syria.

The 11-2 vote, with two abstentions from South Africa and Pakistan, was the third double veto of a resolution addressing the Syria crisis by Damascus' most important allies.

The defeat leaves in limbo the future of the 300-strong U.N. observer mission in Syria, which was forced to suspend operations because of the intensified fighting. Its mandate, to monitor a cease-fire and implementation of international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, expires Friday.

In the latest fighting in Damascus, government forces fired heavy machine guns and mortars in battles with rebels in a number of neighborhoods in the capital, the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

More than 250 people were killed on Thursday in Syria, which is the highest death toll in a single day since the revolt erupted, the Observatory reported. And the group expects that number to rise.

"Intense fighting has been ongoing for five days in Damascus in frustrated attempts by the regime to regain rebel-held areas," said the Observatory.

The group reported intense clashes in a string of neighborhoods along its southern edge, the northeastern neighborhood of Qaboun, and in number of western suburbs.

Gunfire and booms from shelling could be heard throughout the capital, and streets in the hard-hit areas were largely empty, save for government troops or rebels.

"It is a war going on here, literarily a war," said a 25-year-old woman in the Muhajereen neighborhood. She said the sounds of battle had kept her up all night and she had stayed home from work because she feared random gunfire.

"It reminded me of that night when the Americans shelled Baghdad nine years ago," she said. "I was watching it on TV, but today I'm living a very similar situation."

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said some 26 rebels and civilians were killed in Damascus and its suburbs, among more than 100 killed nationwide. At least 47 of the dead were government troops, it said.

Amateur videos posted online gave glimpses of the strife. One video showed dozens of dead and wounded men on the floor of a mosque in the area of Sayida Zeinab, south of Damascus. An off-camera narrator says government helicopters fired on them on Wednesday. Another video showed what appeared to be at least 40 bodies wrapped in cloth and laid out in a mass grave.

Rebels made gains, according to other videos. Some showed dozens of fighters celebrating on three destroyed tanks in the northern town of Izaz, which they said they had seized from the regime.

An Iraqi army general says rebels attacked Syrian forces Thursday on two spots along the nation's porus border with Iraq, killing 21 soldiers and seizing control of one of the four major border posts.

Iraqi Brig. Gen Qassim al-Dulaimi said about a half-dozen rebels stormed the Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim on Thursday morning. He said the rebels forced the border guards from their posts but did not cross into Iraq.

Hours later, in the remote Sinjar mountain range, al-Dulaimi said rebels attacked a Syrian army outpost near the Iraqi border, killed 20 soldiers and their commander. The rebels then seized control of the outpost, al-Duliami said.

However, local Iraqi officials said two other major border crossings remained in control of the Syrian regime. Fathi said the largest port at al-Walid, which is also located near the Jordanian border and accounts or an estimated 90 percent of traffic between Iraq and Syria -- remained the regime's hands.

Activist claims and videos could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from working independently in the country.

Syria's 16-month crisis began with protests inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions, but it has evolved into a civil war, with rebels fighting to topple Assad.

Wednesday's rebel bomb attack on high-level crisis meeting struck the harshest blow yet at the heart of Assad's regime. The White House said the bombing showed Assad was "losing control" of Syria.

Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels' battle to oust Assad; Gen. Assef Shawkat, 62, the deputy defense minister who is married to Assad's elder sister, Bushra, and is one of the most feared figures in the inner circle; and Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister who died of his wounds in the hospital.

Also wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition.

Rebels claimed responsibility, saying they targeted the room where the top government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were meeting.

Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, most of them civilians. The Syrian government says more than 4,000 security officers have been killed. It does not given numbers of civilian dead.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.