Syrian soldiers gather at the military headquarters in Damascus that came… (Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty…)
BEIRUT — Syrian rebels breached checkpoints and concrete barriers Wednesday to attack the country's military headquarters in an assault that left the facility scorched and abandoned, and punctured President Bashar Assad's claim to have his capital under tight control.
The attack in the heart of the city was the rebels' second major effort in Damascus in as many days and appeared aimed at regaining momentum after the conflict had settled in recent weeks into a stalemate across many parts of the country.
Witnesses said gun battles resounded in the area near Umayyad Square for five hours after two bomb explosions early Wednesday, as security forces tried to flush out rebel fighters. Residents were ordered by loudspeaker to stay inside and shut their doors.
Unlike a bombing in mid-July that officials said killed four of Assad's top security aides, the government said Wednesday's attack did not cause major casualties. But it did shatter the impression of calm and control that the government has tried hard to create since heavy fighting over the summer in which Assad's forces claimed to have pushed rebels out of districts across the city.
The attack came as the United Nations General Assembly has been debating the crisis in Syria. The deeply divided U.N. has failed to agree on sanctions to punish Assad and efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting have gone nowhere.
The assault occurred about a mile from Assad's residence, the most visible rebel strike to date in the center of the capital. Intense fighting in July and August focused on outlying districts and working-class suburbs where the rebels had established a presence.
The official news agency said four guards were killed and 14 people injured in the strike against the armed forces command headquarters. State media said that no military commanders had been killed or injured, and that "the terrorists as usual failed to achieve their goals."
The rebel Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the two bombs and said dozens had been killed. A rebel group calling itself the Mustafa Brigade said the blasts were caused by a pair of car bombs, at least one of which was a suicide attack. Rebels also claimed to have planted explosives inside the military headquarters.
Last weekend, the rebel command said it had moved inside "liberated" areas of Syria and was preparing for an offensive on the heavily defended capital. On Tuesday, rebels said they detonated nine bombs in a school where security forces were meeting, as well as the fuel tanks underneath it.
Some reports indicated that rebels were thwarted in a bid to storm the offices of the state-owned television station, just across Umayyad Square.
The first blast, about 7 a.m., sent a massive column of smoke into the sky above the capital and shattered windows. Residents said it was felt a mile away. The second, less powerful explosion followed a few minutes later.
State television showed video of what it called the first blast, a minivan pulling up outside the military compound and abruptly exploding.
Car bombs and explosive devices like those used so effectively against U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq have become important weapons for Syria's rebels, who are unable to match the firepower of the government arsenal. Syrian authorities claim Islamic militants from Iraq and elsewhere are fighting alongside the rebels and have brought their bomb-making skills with them.
In the rebel ground assault, state TV put the number of assailants at seven, but opposition activists said as many as 80 insurgents were involved.
After the fighting ended, the military headquarters was scorched and abandoned, with windows broken and the frames damaged. Large numbers of soldiers patrolled the area.
Broken windows and destroyed offices were also visible at the main library nearby, a landmark that bears the Assad name.
Among the casualties Wednesday were a pair of journalists from Iran's English-language Press TV. The station reported that one of its correspondents, 33-year-old Maya Nasser, was killed by sniper fire. Hussein Murtada, bureau chief in Damascus for Press TV and Iran's Arabic-language Al Alam television, was injured "by insurgents," it said.
The 18-month rebellion against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years, is estimated to have left more than 20,000 dead. Assad blames the violence on a "foreign conspiracy" that the government says is stoked by neighboring Turkey and various Persian Gulf nations and employs Islamic militants recruited from abroad.
Fighting rages on in various areas of the country, including the northern city of Aleppo, the central city of Homs and the eastern city of Dair Alzour.
Also on Wednesday, the opposition reported that more than 100 people had been killed in a four-day government offensive in the southern Damascus suburb of Al Theyabeyyeh.
The opposition said the district had been bombarded "indiscriminately" and residents were later executed. There was no independent confirmation of the report.
A special correspondent in Damascus and a Times staff writer in Beirut contributed to this report.