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Syrian Helicopter Downed in Damascus

This citizen journalism image purports to show a Syrian military helicopter on fire and falling to the ground after it was apparently hit during fighting between government forces and rebels in Damascus, Aug 27, 2012. AP IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY
CAIRO — Syrian rebels say they shot down a military helicopter during heavy fighting with government forces in Damascus Monday.

The helicopter appeared to catch fire amid a hail of automatic rounds coming from rebel positions on the ground. Amateur video -- which has not been independently verified - showed the chopper sputtering, before taking a nose dive and crashing in a ball of fire.

A second amateur video showed what appeared to be a rotor-blade and a burnt section of the helicopter's fuselage in a small alleyway behind several houses.

A rebel spokesman told al Arabiya TV that the Free Syrian Army's "Badr Brigade" shot down the helicopter to "avenge a massacre by (regime forces) in the Damascus suburb of Daraya." He said that the body of the pilot was recovered. The report could not be confirmed.

Watch related video of downed Syrian helicopter

Rebel successes

Analyst Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, says rebels have shot down Syrian government aircraft before.

"This is not the first helicopter shot down by the rebels," he said. "We've seen the rebels manage to even shoot down a jet fighter a couple of weeks back near Deir Ezzor when they shot down a MiG 23 or 27, and there's been also a few instances of helicopters shot down in the north."

Kahwaji said that the rebels in Damascus may have shot down the helicopter with anti-aircraft guns they captured after storming a government anti-aircraft base near the capital last week.

The crash came amid intense military activity by government forces both on the ground and in the air. Government aircraft and artillery have been pounding rebel strongholds in suburbs that ring the Syrian capital.

Witnesses reported heavy government shelling in other Syrian cities, including Homs, parts of Aleppo and Hama. State TV said that government forces captured more territory inside Aleppo. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Refugee crisis growing

In the north of the country, border crossings with Turkey were reportedly closed Monday amid a growing saturation of refugee camps inside Turkey. Al Jazeera television reports that 80,000 Syrian refugees are now living in Turkish camps.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of 15 anti-government factions met in Cairo with Arab League head Nabil Elarabi. Participants reportedly urged Elarabi and the Arab League to help opposition forces defeat and replace the government of Bashar al-Assad.

In an interview with VOA's Kurdish service, Mr. Assad's exiled uncle, living in Europe, said his nephew is repeating the brutal policies of his late father.

Rifaat al-Assad said he warned his nephew numerous times not to repeat the repression of the past, but that President Assad "was not listening."

VOA's Kurdish service contributed to this report.