‘Heavy fighting’ shakes Syrian capital

Gunfire and explosions rock Damascus neighbourhood, a day after a deadly car bomb killed three in city of Aleppo

Rescue teams inspecting the blast scene following a car bomb in Aleppo’s Suleimaniya district [SANA]

Heavy fighting has broken out between opposition fighters and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in a main district of the Syrian capital Damascus that is home to several security installations, witnesses said.
The sound of heavy machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades echoed throughout the night from the western neighbourhood of al-Mezzeh, one of the most heavily guarded areas of the capital, residents told the Reuters news agency by telephone on Monday.
There was no immediate word on casualties but residents said by telephone the fighting was intense.

“There is fighting near Hamada supermarket and the sound of explosions there and elsewhere in the neighbourhood. Security police have blocked several side streets and the street lighting has been cut off,” a housewife who lives in the area said.

Lena, a member of the Revolutionary Leadership Council in Damascus, an opposition activist network, told Al Jazeera “it all started around midnight. People here in Mezzeh started hearing gunfire”.

“Some people came to Mezzeh and they are trying to attack Mezzeh residents. They are calling them names and taking them out of their houses … people have left their homes. They are in the streets. The security forces are all around the place,” she said.

Reporting from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin said: “Residents are telling us there was intense gunfire for hours. They could hear from loudspeakers the army and the security forces asking armed men to leave one of the buildings, Hamada Supermarket.”

“Mezzeh is not geographically located at the heart of the capital but it’s a very important neighbourhood. It is heavily guarded. There are a lot of high ranking officials living in Mezzeh, in addition to UN headquarters, embassies, and ambassadors,” she said.

“This is taking place as the government claims they have control over the capital.”

‘Terrorist’ attacks

The latest fighting came a day after a car bomb in Syria’s second biggest city of Aleppo killed at least three people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Residents told the UK-based rights group that they saw bodies in the streets after Sunday’s blast close to a state security office.

State news channel Syria TV said that Sunday’s “terrorist” explosion took place between two residential buildings in the al-Suleimaniya district, behind a post office.

Mezzeh neighbourhood is home to several security installations [Google Earth]

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from neighbouring Lebanon, said it is not the first time Aleppo was hit during the now year-long uprising against Assad’s rule.

“We have seen an explosion in Aleppo just a few weeks ago. That explosion targeted the security headquarters.”

The opposition also reported heavy raids by security forces and fighting with rebels in northern and southern Syrian provinces and suburbs of Damascus.

In the capital, as crowds gathered for memorials to the 27 victims of Saturday’s car bombs, security forces broke up an opposition march of more than 200 people when protesters began shouting “the people want to topple the regime”.

Among those arrested and beaten was Mohammed Sayyed Rassas, a leader of the National Co-ordinating Body for Democratic Change (NCB), an opposition group which had visited China and Russia in attempt to promote dialogue between Assad and the opposition.

Most opposition groups have rejected the NCB over its insistence on non-violence and its stance against foreign intervention.

Security forces also arrested Farzand Omar, a doctor and politician from the party “Building the Syria State,” when he arrived at the Damascus airport from his hometown of Aleppo.

Civilian casualties

State television blamed “terrorists” for the Saturday morning explosions and reported that vehicles packed with explosives had been used.

The blasts targeted buildings belonging to a customs office and air force intelligence. Most of the casualties were civilians, state television said.

The channel broadcast interviews with Syrians who blamed the attack on the United States and Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who they said had sent “terrorists”.

Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said she doubted the armed groups trying to bring Assad down by force have the capacity to carry out such attacks on security institutions in the capital.

“I don’t think any of the opposition forces or the Free Syrian Army has the capacity to do such an operation to target these buildings because they are fortresses,” she said.

“They are very well guarded. There is no way anyone can penetrate them without having strong support and complicity from inside the security apparatus.”

SANA said a third blast went off near a military bus at the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Damascus later in the day, killing the two suicide bombers.

‘Lieutenant defection’

On Sunday, activists reported that Lieutenant Omar Abu Rakba, the head of the political security intelligence branch in al-Raqqa province, has defected in protest of the government’s crackdown on protests.

The northern province has recently become the scene of massive anti-government protests.

In other parts of the country, heavy fighting raged in the northwestern province of Deir al-Zor and military vehicles were torched, activists said.

Al Jazeera’s Nisreen el-Shamayleh reports on the recent rare protests in al-Raqqa province

In the southern province of Deraa, opposition fighters reportedly blew up a bridge that was used to transport supplies to security forces besieging the city.

Technical experts from the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation are in Syria on a mission to assess the humanitarian impact of the bloodshed, a senior OIC official said on Sunday.

“The joint OIC-UN mission entered Syria on Friday to carry out an evaluation of humanitarian aid,” on a mission led by the Syrian government, its assistant secretary-general, Atta al-Mannan Bakhit, told the AFP news agency.

He said the mission, with three OIC experts in the team, would cover 15 cities, after which a report would be submitted to the Saudi-based Islamic grouping and the UN on the humanitarian needs of the Syrian population.

The United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 people have died so far in the violence following the revolt against four decades of rule by the Assad family.

Syrian authorities say they are fighting insurgents who have so far killed more than 2,000 members of the security forces.

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