Troops and rebels clash in Syrian capital

 

Syrian security forces clashed with gunmen in an upscale neighborhood of the capital Damascus that is home to embassies and senior officials in one of the worst confrontations in the tightly-controlled city center in the country's yearlong uprising.

The pro-government Ikhbariyah TV station said the clash in the western Mazzeh district left three "terrorists" and a member of the security forces dead. It said one of the attackers was captured and three security troops were wounded.

Ikhbariyah said the attackers were hiding out in an apartment building before the firefight.

A resident of the western Mazzeh district said automatic rifles and machineguns were used in the two-hour clash that ended at about 4 a.m. local time. "We also heard three strong explosions," said the man who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.

He added that the clash was close to the Swiss embassy and the home of Maj. Gen. 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.

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 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.

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.

Syrian authorities claim the opposition is made up of "terrorist" groups carrying out a foreign conspiracy.

An activist in the capital said the Monday morning clashes occurred near the Political Security Directorate building. He said the clashes were followed with raids by security forces who were searching for the attackers.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists throughout Syria, said 18 of Assad's troops were wounded in the clashes. It described the clashes "as the most violent of its kind and closest to security centers in Damascus since the revolution began."

The rebel Free Syrian Army, which includes thousands of army defectors, have claimed responsibility in the past for attacks against regime forces.

The group's leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, refused to comment on the fighting in Damascus when contacted by The Associated Press by telephone. "This is a sensitive military matter that we cannot comment about," he said from Turkey.

On Saturday, three suicide bombings in Damascus killed 27 people. Two of them also targeted government security buildings.

On Sunday, an explosion killed two and wounded 30 in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.

AP

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