BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels brought their fight to within a mile of the heart of Damascus yesterday, seizing army checkpoints and cutting a key highway with a row of burning tires as they pressed their campaign for the heavily guarded capital, considered the likely endgame in the nearly two-year-old civil war.

The clashes raised fears that Damascus, a major cultural center, could fall victim to a protracted battle that would bring the destruction seen in other major cities and trigger a mass refugee exodus into neighboring countries.

The latest Damascus offensive, launched from the northeastern side of the city, did not appear to be coordinated with rebels on other sides of the capital, and it was unclear whether the opposition fighters would be able to hold their ground.

Previous attempts to advance on the capital have failed. The government controls movement in and out with a network of checkpoints, and rebels have failed so far to make significant inroads.

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In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency reported a major increase in the number of people fleeing Syria, with 5,000 refugees crossing the borders daily. The mass exodus "is really a full-on crisis," agency spokesman Adrian Edwards said.

Some 787,000 Syrians are registered as refugees, mainly in Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, Edwards said. -- AP