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Syrian Fighting Escalates In And Around Damascus

The focus of the fighting in Syria is once again on the capital Damascus.

A Syrian military helicopter crashed in a ball of fire on Monday on the outskirts of the capital. Syrian state television and the state-run news agency SANA both acknowledged the crash, while grainy video footage posted on the Internet showed the flaming helicopter going down, trailed by a thick plume of black smoke.

The Syrian rebels are claiming that they shot down the helicopter as it carried out an attack, though the government has not said what brought it down.

This comes after killings on the outskirts of Damascus that appear to be one of the bloodiest episodes in more than a year of fighting.

More than 300 Syrians, many of them civilians, were killed in Daraya, just to the southwest of the capital, according to the

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday called it "an appalling and brutal crime" and urged an investigation.

Like so much of the fighting in Syria, there are conflicting claims that can't be sorted out because news organizations face so many restrictions.

But the rebels and their supporters say government forces went on a killing spree after taking Daraya last week.

NPR's Deborah Amos, who has been reporting from rebel-held territory in northern Syria, told our Newscast desk that the Syrian army mounted its operation Friday on the neighborhood, which is made up mostly of Sunni Muslims.

"Activists reached in Daraya report soldiers and civilian militia swept through the town on Saturday, carrying out house-to-house raids, targeting rebel sympathizers," she says.

One Daraya resident, identified as Abu Ahmad, told The New York Times that "The Assad forces killed [people] in cold blood."

"I saw dozens of dead people, killed by the knives at the end of Kalashnikovs, or by gunfire. The regime finished off whole families, a father, mother and their children. They just killed them without any pretext."

A pro-government television network, Al Dunia, claims the rebels were to blame for the deaths. The channel broadcast extremely graphic footage showing the bloodied bodies of civilians throughout the streets and buildings of the area. Many appeared to have been killed by gunshots to the head.

On the diplomatic front, French President Francois Hollande urged the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government, and said France would recognize it. The AP quoted him as saying:

"France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government, inclusive and representative, that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria. France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed."

The rebels have had internal divisions and it's not clear whether they can organize such a leadership that would have wide backing. Still, Hollande's remarks were significant because no other Western government has gone this far is supporting the rebels politically.

The most intense fighting in Syria for the past month has been in and around Aleppo, the largest city in the country and its economic hub. So far, the fighting there has been largely a stalemate.

The Syrian government had maintained a firm grip on Damascus after the uprising began in the spring of 2011, but fighting in the capital has picked up in recent months.

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Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.