Syrian rebels launched a fierce offensive close to Damascus airport on Thursday, as the country suffered a widespread information blackout, with internet and mobile services going down.
In an operation optimistically titled 'Dawn on the Horizon', rebels fought pitched battles with regime troops about three miles from the airport, capturing roads and briefly blocking the main airport road, activists said. "They [rebels] have been inching closer to the airport for the last few days," said Louay Sakka, the vice-chairman of the Syrian Support Group, who said he was in direct contact with some of the fighting brigades.
The fighting forced commercial airlines, including EgyptAir and Emirates to cancel flights to Damascus, citing the "deteriorating situation" around the airport.
Two Austrian soldiers from a UN peacekeeping force were wounded when their convoy came under fire near the airport, the defence ministry said in Vienna.
Fighting centred in the towns of Babila and Hujaira, south-east of the capital, and in Harran al-Awamid, just east of the airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that army reinforcements had been sent to the area.
Separately, regime troops were sent back into largely rebel-held districts of Eastern Ghouta and Douma, in a "cleansing operation" to subdue the insurgents. A Syrian security source from the elite 4th Armoured Division said the army was aiming to completely cut off the suburbs - where rebels are in control — from the city centre.
Opposition member Sakka said this was the start of a major showdown for control of the capital that was likely still to take several weeks.
Omran al-Zu'bi, the Syrian information minister, claimed armed terrorist groups had blown up a communication and internet cable which led to shut down of the internet and communication system in some regions. Activists accused the government of deliberately pulling the plug on the internet.