Heavy Fighting Rocks Syrian Capital

Posted March 19th, 2012 at 7:35 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 gunbattles 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 Monday's fighting in the Mazzeh district wounded 18 government soldiers. The Observatory described the fighting 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 violence broke out when security forces stormed an apartment used as a hideout by what it called an “armed terrorist” group in Mazzeh, killing two “terrorists” 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.

Also Monday, Reuters reported dozens of government tanks stormed the eastern city of Deir al-Zor to seize major districts held by rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

On the diplomatic front, a mission sent by U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on a monitoring operation to end the bloodshed. Mr. Annan is a former United Nations secretary-general.

Aid groups have limited access to Syria, but a group of technical experts was recently allowed into the country to evaluate humanitarian needs among the civilian population. Staff from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the United Nations have joined Syrian government officials on a tour of 15 cities.

Syrian security forces on Sunday broke up a rally attended by hundreds of people in Damascus marking the first anniversary of anti-government protests. Police arrested several prominent opposition leaders. Government forces also prevented anniversary marches in other cities.

A car bomb outside a government security building in the northern city of Aleppo Sunday killed two and wounded 30.

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.