Heavy Clashes Frighten Residents in Syria Capital

BEIRUT (AP) -

Syrian rebels and regime forces fought their most intense clashes in weeks inside the heavily-guarded capital of Damascus on Wednesday, activists said, with the sounds of shell blasts echoing through the downtown area and keeping many children home from school while residents hid in their houses.

The opposition fighters blasted army checkpoints with rifles and anti-aircraft guns, while government forces shelled the eastern and southern suburbs, trying to repel a new insurgent effort to push the civil war into the heart of the capital, the anti-regime activists said.

Although bordered by rebellious suburbs that have seen fierce fighting, widespread clashes have remained mostly on the capital’s edges, saving it from the destruction that has ravaged other major cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

The military of President Bashar Assad has focused on securing the capital, and the dozens of rebel groups that have established footholds in Damascus suburbs have failed to form a united front, each fighting for its own area with little or no coordination with others.

Much of Wednesday’s fighting was sparked by a push by a number of rebel groups in the northwestern neighborhood of Jobar, which is bisected by the Damascus ring road. Rebels, who control the area east of the road, launched attacks on army checkpoints in the regime-controlled western part to try to seize the road, one of the capital’s most important thoroughfares.

Rebels claimed to have seized at least one checkpoint near a prominent mosque on the ring road, but it was unclear where the front lines were late Wednesday. Rebels often abandon areas soon after seizing them, fearing government shelling and airstrikes.

The government responded by stopping traffic to the Abbasid roundabout on the neighborhood’s western side and closing a number of roads nearby. Activists said the army also rained shells on rebel areas east of the city. Online videos showed repeated blasts in the nearby suburb of Arbeen sending up clouds of smoke.

“We woke up this morning to the sound of fierce battles,” said a Jobar resident who had fled to another Damascus neighborhood. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety, he said it was not the first time he had fled fighting in the neighborhood.

The state news agency said the army was pursuing rebels in Jobar and other areas east of the city and had killed an unspecified number of them.