July 17 (Bloomberg) -- Fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army battled government soldiers in central Damascus, the heart of President Bashar al-Assad’s power base, pressing on with three days of fighting in areas of the capital.
The rebel force, made up largely of defected soldiers, said today that the “battle for the liberation” of Damascus has begun, Al Arabiya television reported.
The Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group, said gunfire could be heard in several neighborhoods in the capital. Rebels blew up three tanks in Damascus, the group said on its Facebook page. Activists told Al Arabiya that government forces are urging residents of the Al-Maidan neighborhood to vacate before they bombard it.
Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest cities, have been spared the worst of the violence until recently, as government forces waged fierce battles in provinces such as Homs and Hama. The two cities are home to merchants and wealthy Assad supporters who have benefited from their close ties to the administration. In recent weeks, clashes in the suburbs of Damascus began to approach the capital as the rebels appeared to gain ground.
“There are organized military units who are testing the regime in and around Damascus,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said in an interview today from Cairo. “I suspect this is now going to be a continuing intensifying battle in Damascus. The regime having to use heavy armor in the environment of Damascus tells you how much trouble it’s in.”
Hasan Abdel-Azim, secretary-general of the opposition Nasirist Party, said he heard gunshots as he left the Justice Ministry complex in the heart of the capital around noon today.
“The gunfire was close,” Abdel-Azim said by telephone. “There have been intermittent clashes between the Free Syrian Army and regular troops for the past three days. Damascus is no longer immune from the violence.”
The violence since the insurrection against Assad began in March 2011 has claimed more than 17,000 lives, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Casualties include more than 4,300 members of the security forces, he said. The Local Coordination Committees in Syria said 28 people were killed in Syria today, including five in Damascus. Al Jazeera television said a colonel, Ziad Tlass, defected to Jordan today.
Syria’s state television said today that a group of gunmen opened fire in Damascus’s Nahr Aisha area and were trying to block the roads. A 30-year-old Syrian pharmacist who was caught in violence in that area yesterday said she saw the driver of a car in front of her die when six men got on a pedestrian bridge and started strafing motorists stuck in traffic.
The woman, who asked not to be named, fearing for her safety, said the men, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, used heavy machine-guns in the three- to four-minute incident. She said she and other passengers broke down and started to scream.
The observatory said on its Facebook page today that the government used helicopters yesterday to bomb al-Hajar and al-Qadam on the outskirts of Damascus. Activists told Al Arabiya that tanks strafed several Damascus neighborhoods. The government said its forces chased “an armed terrorist group” near Naher Aisha in Damascus’s suburbs, according to the state-run Sana news agency.
The escalating violence comes as diplomatic efforts to end the revolt are stalled before a United Nations vote. In New York, Russia conceded no ground in negotiations over a Western-drafted resolution that threatens Assad with non-military measures such as sanctions and demands he step aside to make way for a “Syrian-led political transition.” A vote is scheduled for tomorrow.
Russia, which has twice blocked measures to protect its Soviet-era ally, says it will use its veto again.
“This is seen by some as a stepping stone for military intervention,” Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said. “I made it very clear that we are going to vote against their draft, and we are not going to be the only ones.”
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