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Syria troops fight rebels in rare Damascus clashes


At least three people were killed today in Damascus as Syrian security forces clashed with gunmen in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital that is home to embassies and senior officials.

The clash deep in Mazzeh district in west Damascus shows the shifting nature of the conflict in Syria, and suggests that rebels might be trying to offset government morale gains from recent successful offensives against opposition strongholds areas in the north and centre of Syria by striking close to where senior regime members live.

Damascus has been largely free of the daily shootings and deaths reported across the country since the uprising against Assad began in March last year. But in addition to gunbattles in Mazzeh and in the suburbs, the capital has witnessed several major bomb attacks targeting security facilities, most recently on Saturday. The government blames "terrorists" for the bombings but the opposition says that the regime itself may be carrying them out to discredit the uprising.

Today's fighting broke out when security forces stormed an apartment used as a hideout by an "armed terrorist" group in Mazzeh after evacuating the building of all inhabitants, the state-run news agency SANA said.

It added that the forces killed two of the gunmen and arrested the third while a member of the security forces also lost his life. SANA gave no further details.

A resident of the western Mazzeh district said automatic rifles and machine guns were used in the two-hour clash that ended at about 4am local time. "We also heard three strong explosions," said the man.

He added that the clash was close to the Swiss embassy and the home of Major General Assef Shawkat, the deputy chief of staff for security affairs who is married to President Bashar Assad's sister, Bushra.

Armed rebels are active in Damascus' suburbs and satellite towns but rarely venture into the heart of the capital where Assad's troops are deployed in force.

The new fighting shows that rebels can still strike in the heart of the capital despite successful government offensive in the past weeks in the suburbs of Damascus, in the central city of Homs and the northern region of Idlib.