BEIRUT, Mar 19 – Fierce clashes between rebel fighters and Syrian troops rocked a Damascus district bristling with security facilities on Monday, as experts sent by peace envoy Kofi Annan flew in to the capital.
Amid international efforts to set up a monitoring mission and initiate a brief daily ceasefire to allow for humanitarian operations, the security forces also launched attacks in several parts of the country, opposition activists said.
The fighting in western Damascus, the capital’s heaviest since a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime erupted a year ago, came as residents were still reeling from deadly bombings at the weekend.
State television said three “terrorists” and a security force member were killed in the clashes before dawn in the upscale and heavily-guarded Mazzeh area of Damascus that hosts several security facilities.
It said several people were also wounded on both sides.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 18 security troops were wounded.
“The clashes were the strongest and the closest to security installations in the capital since the outbreak of the revolt a year ago,” Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that by 4:00 am (0200 GMT) the fighting had died down.
Mourtada Rasheed, an activist in Damascus, said blasts and heavy shooting could be heard in Mazzeh as well as two other districts, Qaboon and Arbeen.
“We woke up at 3:00 am (0100 GMT) to the sound of heavy machinegun fire and rocket propelled grenades (RPG),” said one resident of Qaboon who did not wish to be named.
A resident of Mazzeh, which is overlooked by Assad’s clifftop presidential palace and home to several embassies, said locals were terrified by the rattle of gunfire.
“We were very scared but now the roads are clear and stores are open for business,” she told AFP.
Rasheed said the fighting was the result of a hit-and-run operation launched in Mazzeh by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to ease pressure on other regions targeted by regime forces.
On the diplomatic front, a mission sent by UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on a monitoring operation to end the year-long conflict which monitors say has cost more than 9,100 lives.
“There are five people with expertise in political, peacekeeping and mediation,” Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for Annan, told AFP in Geneva, declining to disclose their precise plans or whereabouts.
“They will be staying for as long as they are making progress on reaching agreement on practical steps to implement Mr Annan’s proposals,” he added.
Any new Annan visit to Damascus, following a trip earlier this month, would “depend largely on progress being made by the Syrians in working with the mission,” Fawzi said.
Technical experts from the UN and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation were on Monday also working in Syria to assess the humanitarian impact of the regime’s deadly crackdown on protests.
“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, OIC assistant secretary general Atta al-Mannan Bakhit told AFP.
The seven-to-10-day mission, with three OIC experts in the team, would cover 15 cities, on the first such assignment in Syria since the violence started. It was launched in the flashpoint province of Homs on Sunday.
International Red Cross head Jakob Kellenberger, meanwhile, was to hold talks on Monday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the “extremely difficult” humanitarian situation in Syria’s battered protest hubs.
“A daily ceasefire of at least two hours is imperative to allow the evacuation of the wounded,” he said ahead of his mission to Moscow, an ally of Damascus which is seen as having influence on Syria’s leadership.
On the ground, troops backed by dozens of tanks raided districts of the city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, the Observatory said, a day after at least 25 army deserters were killed and 33 wounded in seizing its Hamidiya district.
Five soldiers, including two officers, were also killed, it said.
In the centre of the country, soldiers bombarded the Bab Sbaa, Khalidiyeh and Karm al-Shami districts of Homs, the monitoring group said.
Troops in Idlib province of northwest Syria launched an assault on Abdita, home village of defector Colonel Riyadh Asaad, head of the Turkey-based FSA, local activist Nurredin al-Abdo told AFP.
The Britain-based Observatory added that troops also besieged and stormed the town of Kafar Shams, in the southern province of Daraa.
Monday’s clashes in the capital came after twin car bombs ripped through two neighbourhoods of Damascus on Saturday killing 27 people, according to the interior ministry.
Another car bomb exploded on Sunday in a residential neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria’s second city and commercial hub, killing two people.
Assad enjoys a strong support base in Damascus and Aleppo, both of which had so far been largely spared the unrest shaking the country since the revolt against the regime began last March.