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Fighting intensifies in Syrian capital

Both rebels and the government of Bashar Assad report significant gains in Damascus.

February 06, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
  • Smoke pours from an area of Damascus, Syria, as fighting raged between rebels and government forces.
Smoke pours from an area of Damascus, Syria, as fighting raged between rebels… (Ugarit News / Associated…)

BEIRUT — Shelling and explosions were heard in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Wednesday amid some of the fiercest clashes reported in months, and government and opposition forces both said they had made significant advances.

Acrid smoke hung over parts of Damascus, opposition activists said.

The renewed fighting in the capital appeared to dash the faint hope of peace talks in the almost 2-year-old conflict. Neither side has agreed to dialogue, despite conditional offers in recent weeks from representatives of the opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad.

Late Wednesday, it was unclear whether either side had pushed forward or whether both the government and rebels had managed to hold their positions in and around Damascus.

Opposition activists said various rebel militias had launched coordinated attacks early Wednesday on checkpoints and other government-controlled positions in what some termed a final battle for the city.

"It lit up in Damascus," said one opposition activist reached via Skype. "It's a big war inside Damascus."

The fighting appeared to be concentrated in the vicinity of Damascus' Abaseen Square, a strategic site near the boundary with the embattled eastern Ghouta region and the hotly contested northeastern suburb of Jobar, which reportedly suffered heavy shelling. But clashes also raged in several southern neighborhoods and suburbs, according to opposition and official accounts.

The government media office said the military had inflicted "heavy losses" on "terrorists," its standard term for armed rebels.

The Information Ministry took the unusual step of issuing a statement that appeared aimed at countering opposition assertions of momentum.

"Media reports on the situation in Damascus are categorically baseless and are desperate attempts intended to lift the morale of the terrorists who are fleeing under the strikes of the armed forces," the official Syrian Arab News Agency said.

Each side in the conflict has regularly exaggerated its gains and downplayed its losses. Government restrictions on access to the media and independent monitors have made it difficult to assess the conflicting accounts.

Central Damascus has been securely in government hands since late summer, when the army pushed back rebels in often-intense, sometimes house-to-house combat that left several districts heavily damaged.

Insurgent forces fell back to the suburbs and other outlying areas where periodic clashes and heavy government bombardment have continued. The army has been unable to vanquish opposition fighters but has tried to push them as far from Damascus as possible in a bid to insulate the capital.

There was no immediate word Wednesday on total casualties. One opposition report indicated that 13 fighters had been killed in clashes in Jobar.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said mortar shells had killed five civilians in the Jobar area and that at least three soldiers had been killed at checkpoints targeted by rebels.

A video released by the group showed opposition fighters using sticks and whips to beat three women in Jobar accused of cooperating with Syrian authorities.

Meanwhile, in Palmyra, about 150 miles northeast of Damascus, a pair of car bombs exploded, the government and the opposition said. Opposition activists said the bombs targeted a government intelligence compound, killing at least 19 security personnel.

The government said a pair of "suicide terrorists" killed "several citizens" and injured others, while causing "huge material damage." Suicide car bombs have become a key weapon in the rebel arsenal.

A special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.

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