Heavy Fighting Rocks Syrian Capital

Posted March 19th, 2012 at 11:05 am (UTC-5)
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Syrian security forces have clashed with rebels in an upscale area of Damascus that is home to embassies and senior officials in the worst gunbattle the tightly-controlled city has seen since the start of the country's year-long uprising.

The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said at least three rebels were killed and 18 government soldiers wounded during Monday's fighting in the Mazzeh district. The Observatory described the gunbattle as “the most violent of its kind and closest to security centers in Damascus since the revolution began.”

The state-run news agency SANA said the security forces stormed an apartment used as a hideout by what it called an “armed terrorist” group in Mazzeh, killing two gunmen and arresting a third. Syrian authorities claim the opposition is made up of terrorist gangs carrying out a foreign conspiracy to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Abdel-Rahman gave an account of the same clash, saying several “armed groups of defectors” entered the city from the Damascus suburbs and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the house of an army brigadier general.

The violence coincided with the arrival in Damascus of a team of five experts, sent by U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan to discuss proposals to deploy international monitors in Syria. Mr. Annan is a former United Nations secretary-general.

A separate team of experts from the United Nations and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, working with a Syrian government-led mission, began a 15-city tour Monday to assess humanitarian needs in areas hard hit by the crackdown.

In Moscow, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said the humanitarian situation in Syria is likely to get worse, underlining the need for “urgent measures” to ease the crisis.

The ICRC's Jakob Kellenberger told reporters he hopes Russia would help persuade Mr. Assad to allow more access for humanitarian assistance to the worst affected areas. He said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “clearly agreed to” the idea of a daily two-hour cease-fire to allow aid operations better access.

Russia is a long-time ally of Damascus and has also been one of its top arms suppliers.

Also Monday, witnesses said dozens of government tanks stormed the eastern city of Deir al-Zor to seize areas previously held by Free Syrian Army rebels. The area is dominated by Sunni Muslim tribes who live on both sides of the nearby Iraqi border.

The United Nations says at least 8,000 people have been killed in the Assad government's violent crackdown on the revolt, which began with peaceful protests and became increasingly militarized as army defectors attacked pro-Assad troops who assaulted civilians.