Syria: Damascus hit by worst gun battles in year-long revolt
IN A violent reminder to president Bashar al-Assad that his military has not crushed rebels opposed to his regime, gunmen have fought government forces in a wealthy district of central Damascus, in the most violent gun battles the Syrian capital has seen since the start of the year-long revolt.
The clashes, near the centre of Assad’s power base, appeared to be an attempt by rebels, who have been forced out of Homs and Idlib and came under attack in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor yesterday, to show they still pose a serious challenge.
Fighting erupted after midnight in the upmarket al-Mezze district when up to six rebels fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the house of an army general, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Quoting local residents, he said the gunmen then took refuge in a building where they battled soldiers, gunfire echoing throughout the neighbourhood. Official Syrian news agency Sana said three rebels and one member of the security forces died.
Damascus residents said the fighting in al-Mezze included an attack by rebels near the home of Assef Shawkat, who is Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces. It wasn’t immediately clear if he was the prime target.
The confrontation came two days after a double car bombing killed at least 27 people in the heart of the city, in a sign that the capital might be slowly sinking into mayhem.
“These clashes were the most violent and the closest to the security force headquarters in Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution,” Mr Abdulrahman said.
Video footage showed the top two floors of an unidentified apartment block scorched by fire, its walls and stairway pitted with bullet holes and shrapnel.
The latest violence coincided with the arrival in Damascus of a team of five experts, sent by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy for Syria, to discuss proposals to deploy international monitors in the country.
A separate team of experts from the UN and the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation, led by the Syrian government, also started a mission to assess humanitarian needs. The group is due to visit areas hit by the uprising, including Homs, scene of a month-long siege and military bombardment in February, and Deraa, where the revolt against Assad erupted a year ago.
Assad is fighting for the survival of his family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades, and has rejected calls from much of the West and the Arab world to stand aside.
His troops have launched crackdowns in recent weeks, winning back much lost ground, but the violence has not abated and analysts warn the uprising could degenerate into civil war.
Witnesses said pro-Assad forces stormed the eastern tribal Sunni Muslim city of Deir al-Zor yesterday to seize areas previously held by the Free Syrian Army – a lightly armed and disparate resistance force led by army defectors. “I heard the sound of several explosions. They could be tanks firing their guns or rebels using dynamite to try and slow down their advance,” one said.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking in Moscow where he met foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said the humanitarian situation in Syria was likely get worse, underlining the need for “urgent measures” to ease the crisis.
Jakob Kellenberger told reporters he hoped Russia would help persuade Assad to allow more access for humanitarian aid to the worst affected areas.
Russia is a long-time ally of Damascus and has also been one of its leading suppliers of weapons.
In a new report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said arms deliveries to Syria had surged by 580 per cent from 2007 to 2011, compared with the previous five years, with Russia supplying 78 per cent of those imports.
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