Will Syria use chemical weapons against foreigners?
The past week of fighting in Syria has escalated international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian officials now say they won't use their biological and chemical weapons 'unless Syria faces external aggression.'
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"The expectation that the regime is out of firepower or collapsing right now is misplaced."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Reaching a critical juncture in Syria
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But Assad's forces have lost ground outside cities, ceding control of four border posts on the Turkish and Iraqi borders.
Sky Television footage from the town of Azaz close to the border with Turkey showed rebel fighters parading through streets firing triumphantly after a prolonged battle with government forces.
In Aleppo, activists said thousands of residents fled the rebel-held districts of Al-Haideriya, Hanano and Sakhour after army shelling and clashes between rebels and government forces in which activists said three government tanks were destroyed.
A video posted by activists showed families crammed into taxis, vans and the back of trucks trying to flee. Dozens of other families set out on foot, carrying plastic bags with their belongings.
"This is a large-scale hit-and-run battle. The whole point is to bleed the regime dry. It is a very long fight, and it will be especially long in Aleppo," said a spokesman from the Islamist rebel group the Battalions for the Free Men of Syria.
The fighting in Damascus, Aleppo and the eastern city of Deir al-Zor has been some of the fiercest yet and showed Assad's determination to avenge last Wednesday's bomb attack, the most spectacular blow of the uprising.
Activists reported clashes on Monday in the Damascus districts of Qadam and Kafr Sousseh. Rebel sources say the guerrilla fighters in the capital may lack the supply lines to remain there for long and may have to make tactical withdrawals.
In the northeast district of Qaboun, where Assad's forces pushed fighters back in recent days, most streets were empty, said a resident reached by telephone who visited the area from another part of Damascus. A few people were returning to check on homes, some of which were destroyed.
"I came just to pick up some of my family's belongings, I am not returning for now," one woman told the visitor at her empty-looking four-storey building.
Groups of men were removing bodies from underneath the rubble of one building. "We have removed 25 bodies so far from this area, we are burying them quickly," one said.
An activist said 24 bodies had been found outside the capital in the Daraya district of the countryside on Monday, and that they appeared to be fighters who had been executed.
The accounts could not be verified independently; Syria restricts access by journalists.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles reports from anti-Assad activists, said 1,261 people had been killed across Syria since last Sunday when fighting escalated in Damascus, making it by far the bloodiest week in an uprising activists say has claimed at least 18,000 lives.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Antakya, and Matt Spetalnick and Warren Strobel in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff and Peter Cooney)