Syrian troops clash with rebels in Damascus suburbs

Tue, Mar 20, 2012, 00:00

SYRIAN TROOPS yesterday clashed with rebels in the western Mezze district of Damascus, where government offices, security facilities and diplomatic residences are located.

Machine gun fire and explosions woke residents at 1am and continued until 4am.

Syrian television said two rebel gunmen and one security man had been killed and several on both sides had been injured. One “terrorist” was said to have been captured.

Rami Abdul Rahman of the Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several “armed groups of defectors” entered the capital from outlying towns and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the flat of an army brigadier general, attracting the attention of the security forces. He reported that four out of 10 gunmen were killed and 16 soldiers wounded.

A resident of the neighbourhood who lives near where the incident occurred gave a different account. He told The Irish Times that a fierce firefight erupted when troops tracked armed elements to an apartment building. When the they were called upon to leave the building, they refused. The army evacuated residents before attacking. Two flats were said to have been gutted during the exchange.

Although this clash was the most violent in Damascus since the revolt began a year ago, traffic returned to the streets and shops opened.

Mezze, which has poor as well as wealthy and middle class neighbourhoods, was the scene of several large anti-regime protests last month.

Damascus, Syria’s largest city, and Aleppo, the second city, have been largely free of bombings, shooting, and violent attacks that have wracked other cities and towns.

In the east, tanks reportedly entered Deir al-Zor to flush the Free Syrian Army out of the city, located in an oil-producing area.

Ahead of the capital clashes, a team of experts dispatched by UN- Arab League envoy Kofi Annan began discussions with the government on mechanisms for reaching a ceasefire, providing humanitarian access to contested areas, and launching a dialogue involving the regime and opposition groups.

The government replied that it was “keen to end violence” but demanded that rebels must cease fire and give up their weapons in exchange for amnesty before a dialogue can begin. Both rebels and key opposition groups have, so far, rejected talks with the regime.

Mr Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said the team consisted of five people “with expertise in peacekeeping and mediation. They will be staying for as long as they are making progress . . . on practical steps to implement Mr Annan’s proposals.”

France has prepared a “presidential statement” to be issued by the UN Security Council to support the Annan mission and to put pressure on Damascus to agree and implement its proposals.

Meanwhile, a government-led mission including personnel from the UN humanitarian agency and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has begun surveying civilian needs in 15 war-torn cities, including Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa. The mission is due to stay for a week to 10 days.

In Moscow, Jakob Kellenberger, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who agreed to back a daily two-hour ceasefire in areas where there is fighting so that Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent personnel can evacuate wounded and deliver aid to trapped civilians. Mr Kellenberger said Russia had pledged to exert pressure on Damascus to agree to the proposal.

However, Mr Lavrov cannot promise to deliver the government, which has previously ignored the advice of Moscow, the Syrian government’s sole internationally influential ally.

Mr Kellenberger said: “Our assessment, unfortunately, is that the humanitarian situation is likely to deteriorate.”