BEIRUT

Terrified families flee as violence, firefights intensify

Syrian government forces attacked rebels with helicopter gunships in the heart of Damascus on Tuesday, escalating a campaign to crush their opponents as clashes spread to new areas, illustrating the rebels’ growing reach.

Cracks of gunfire and explosions echoed inside the capital for a third day, including a firefight near the country’s parliament, in an unprecedented challenge to government rule in President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.

Neighboring Iraq called on its citizens living in Syria to return home, as the fighting overshadowed another round of diplomatic maneuvering to end the civil war, with special envoy Kofi Annan in Moscow in an attempt to rescue his faltering peace plan.

Plumes of gray smoke billowed over the Damascus skyline and helicopter gunships strafed the area, activists said – a sign the regime is growing desperate to push the rebels away from the heavily-guarded capital.

Terrified families fled the city or said they were prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.

WASHINGTON

Obama unveils plan for elite math, science teacher corps

The Obama administration unveiled plans Wednesday to create an elite corps of master teachers, a $1 billion effort to boost U.S. students’ achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.

The program to reward high-performing teachers with salary stipends is part of a long-term effort by President Obama to encourage education in high-demand areas that hold the key to future economic growth — and to close the achievement gap between American students and their international peers.

Teachers selected for the Master Teacher Corps will be paid an additional $20,000 a year and must commit to participate multiple years. The goal is to create a multiplier effect in which expert educators share their knowledge and skills with other teachers, improving the quality of education for all students.

The administration will make $100 million available immediately out of an existing fund to incentivize top-performing teachers.