Amman: Rebels fought government forces in Damascus on Monday, in the most violent gunbattles the Syrian capital has seen since the start of the year-long revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists said.
The fighting 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 on Monday, to show they still pose a serious challenge.
The heavy fighting shattered the night calm in the al-Mezze district, home to intelligence offices and foreign embassies, and left two "terrorists" and one member of the security forces dead, Syria`s official news agency said.
The armed confrontation came just two days after a double car bombing killed at least 27 people in the heart of the city, raising fears the capital might sink 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," said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
He said 18 pro-Assad fighters were wounded in the shooting, with the sound of heavy machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) echoing through the pre-dawn gloom. Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities have barred access to rights groups and journalists.
Assad is fighting for the survival of his family dynasty, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist 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 fierce 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, pitting Assad`s minority Alawite sect against the Sunni Muslims, who make up 75 percent of the 23-million-strong population.
Witnesses said pro-Assad forces had stormed the eastern Sunni Muslim city of Deir al-Zor on Monday to seize areas 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," Tareq, one of the residents, told Reuters by phone from the city, which lies on the road to Iraq.
The agency reported that 13 civilians were shot dead by opposition "terrorists" near Syria`s third largest city Homs on Sunday and said rebels had also destroyed a railway bridge linking Damascus to the southern Deraa region.
Damascus residents told Reuters that the fighting in Mezze included an attack by rebels in the Western Villas area, near the home of Assef Shawkat - Assad`s brother-in-law and deputy chief-of-staff of the armed forces.
The grassroots Local Coordination Committees said security was subsequently beefed up, with the feared Shabbiha militia taking to the streets. The government had previously tried to maintain a semblance of normality in the area, sparing it the roadblocks and concrete barriers seen elsewhere in the capital.
On Sunday, car bombs targeted a criminal police headquarters and a security intelligence centre in Damascus, killing 27 and wounding more than 100. A car bomb also hit a residential area of Syria`s second city Aleppo on Sunday, killing two people,
The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed and some 230,000 forced to flee their homes, including at least 30,000 who have escaped abroad. The government says about 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed.
Turkey has raised the prospect of setting up a "buffer zone" in Syria to protect those trying to flee. Turkey`s Disaster and Emergency Management Department said on Monday 279 Syrians had crossed the border between March 18-19, bring the total number of Syrian refugees in the country to 16,446.
A joint team of experts from the United Nations and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, led by the Syrian government, have started a mission to assess humanitarian needs across the country, a source close the mission said on Monday.
The group is due to visit areas hit by the uprising including the city of Homs, scene of a month-long siege and military bombardment in February, and Deraa, where the revolt against Assad erupted a year ago.
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 was in Russia to seek its help in persuading Assad to allow more access for humanitarian aid to areas worst affected by the violence.
The UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, is expected to send a team of experts to Damascus later on Monday to discuss his proposal to deploy international monitors in Syria in a bid to stem the violence.
Assad, who has received crucial backing from both Russia and China on the UN Security Council, has questioned the worth of such a mission.
Arms deliveries to Syria surged 580 percent from 2007 to 2011 compared with the previous five years, a leading think tank said on Monday, with Russia supplying most of the weapons.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said Moscow had supplied 78 percent of Syria`s weapons imports during the period. A top Russian official said last week he saw no need for any change to military cooperation accords with Damascus.