Syrian forces launched a major offensive in Damascus near the country's international airport Thursday, and the government shut down Internet access across the country and slashed cell phone services in selected areas.
The army attacked rebel strongholds in a string of towns along the airport road. A rebel fighter said insurgents were not inside the airport but were able to block access to it.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the heaviest clashes erupted between troops and rebels in the towns of Babila and Hujaira, southeast of the capital, and in Harran al-Awamid, just east of the airport.
The fighting, which came after Internet links went down, caused EgyptAir and Emirates airline, based in Dubai, to suspend flights to Damascus.
The wholescale Internet blackout, confirmed by two U.S.-based companies that monitor online connectivity, is unprecedented in the 20-month-long uprising against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Authorities often cut phone lines and Internet access in areas where government forces are conducting major military operations.
A pro-government television station quoted Syria's minister of information as saying "terrorists," not state agents, were responsible for the countrywide outage.
The British-based Observatory said rebel units launched a new offensive in the country's north, trying to take a military base near the main highway to Syria's commercial capital of Aleppo. The Observatory said rebel forces in Idlib province began moving on Wadi al-Deif early Thursday.
Opposition activists have been voicing increasing optimism that rebel forces are making gains and maintaining their positions against government forces. Some point to recent successful attacks against government warplanes and helicopters as evidence the conflict's momentum may be shifting.
There are also renewed allegations that Syrian rebels are using child soldiers in their efforts to overthrow the Assad government.
Human Rights Watch said children as young as 14 have served in rebel brigades, acting as lookouts and transporting weaponry. The human rights organization said some have even taken part in combat.
A view of buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet, Daria, Syria, November 30, 2012.
Demonstrators hold a placard that reads "Victory sign over the palace," during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Binsh, November 30, 2012.
People walk along a row of barb wire near the border with Syria, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, November 30, 2012.
Youths sit next to a row of barbed wire near the Syrian border, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, November 30, 2012.
An Ottoman-era building damaged by an air strike in a besieged area in Homs, Syria, November 28, 2012.
A Free Syrian Army fighter with an amputated hand, takes cover from a sniper loyal to Syria's President Bashar al -Assad, near Aleppo's historic citadel, November 28, 2012.
This image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News shows smoke after a building was struck in a warplane attack in Homs, Syria, November 28, 2012.
A man carries parts of a warplane, belonging to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Daret Azzah, November 28, 2012.
This image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News shows people near a destroyed plane that was shot down by Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, Syria, November 28, 2012.
Residents pose near damaged wheat sacks after Syrian Air Force fighter jets fired missiles at the town of Ras al-Ain, Syria, November 26, 2012.
Members of the Free Syrian Army and men from the northern Syrian town of Ras al-Ain unload wheat from trucks, as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, November 26, 2012.
Smoke rises from damaged wheat sacks after Syrian Air Force fighter jets fired missiles at the town of Ras al-Ain, Syria, November 26, 2012.
Residents walk near debris from damaged buildings after shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Daria near Damascus, Syria, November 26, 2012.
Free Syrian Army fighters are seen in Daria near Damascus, Syria, November 25, 2012.