Syria unrest: Fierce firefight erupts in Damascus

Apartment buildings damaged by fighting in Damascus Apartment buildings were damaged in heavy fighting in the al-Mezze area of Damascus

A firefight has erupted in Damascus, in one of the fiercest clashes in the Syrian capital since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule began.

Witnesses say machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades were heard from the heavily guarded district of al-Mezze, which hosts several security buildings.

Syrian TV said three "terrorists" and a security force member had been killed.

The UN estimates more than 8,000 people have died in the year-long uprising.

Meanwhile, a team of experts sent by special UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has now arrived in Syria to discuss ceasefire and monitoring plans, AFP news agency reports.

And in Moscow, the head of the Red Cross said that Russia had reacted "positively" to his call for a daily two-hour cessation of hostilities in Syria.

'Explosions'

Al-Mezze has previously been the scene of large anti-government protests.

One resident told Reuters news agency there was "fighting near Hamada supermarket and the sound of explosions there and elsewhere in the neighbourhood".

Analysis

The fighting centred on a flat in al-Mezze. Residents nearby said two floors were burnt out after the clashes. Gunfire continued into the morning in the district, part of central Damascus.

This is an upmarket residential area but it also contains a substantial security presence. The Free Syria Army is present in suburbs of Damascus but there are no records of any presence in this part of town. Close by is the al-Mezze 86 district, a security stronghold, whose residents are loyal to President Assad. Early last month, residents of 86 district fired at protesters who took to the streets calling for an end to President Assad's rule.

Since then there has been heavy security in the area. However, some protesters managed to cut off roads by burning tyres and staging anti-Assad protests.

He said security police blocked side streets and cut off the street lighting.

Opposition activist Amer al-Sadeq told the BBC's World Today programme he had spoken to a contact in al-Mezze who reported four blasts within five minutes and then heavy gunfire.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the fighting "the most violent of its kind and closest to security centres in Damascus since the revolution began", adding that 18 government troops had been injured.

It said a cell of rebel fighters had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the home of a leading army officer, but this has not been confirmed.

The gunfire continued into Monday morning but is now over.

One al-Mezze resident told AFP: "We were very scared but now the roads are clear and stores are open."

State television said that in addition to the dead, several people on both sides were injured.

In January, the rebel Free Syria Army briefly seized several Damascus suburbs.

The latest incident follows bomb blasts in Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo over the weekend.

The car bomb that exploded in Aleppo on Sunday killed at least two people and injured 30 others.

Map

A day earlier, at least 27 people were reported to have been killed and 97 wounded in two explosions in the capital.

State TV described the blasts as "terrorist" attacks.

However, activists have accused the authorities of staging incidents to discredit opposition groups.

Reuters news agency on Monday reported residents of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor as saying that dozens of tanks had entered the city to try to dislodge Free Syrian Army rebels.

Pause plea

On Monday, a team of experts arrived in Syria to press Mr Annan's proposals for a ceasefire and monitoring.

Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told AFP: "There are five people with expertise in peacekeeping and mediation. They will be staying for as long as they are making progress to reach agreement on practical steps to implement Mr Annan's proposals."

Syria rebels in Idlib province In some parts of Syria, rebel fighters, like these in Idlib province, openly brandish their weaponry

Meanwhile, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, travelled to Moscow to meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Mr Lavrov gave "positive indications of support... for the initiative of a two-hour cessation of fighting on a daily basis", a Red Cross spokesman said.

The ICRC says the pause is needed for the evacuation of the wounded and to allow in food and medicine.

Mr Kellenberger added: "I would like to note with satisfaction and gratitude that Sergei Lavrov shares our concern about these problems."

Russia is a key ally of Syria and, along with China, has thwarted attempts to form a UN resolution condemning the repression.

President Assad is trying to quell an increasingly armed rebellion that sprang from a fierce crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests a year ago.

He insists his troops are fighting "armed gangs" seeking to destabilise Syria.

What's happening in Syria? The Syrian government has been trying to suppress an uprising inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The UN says thousands have been killed in the crackdown, and that many more have been detained and displaced. The Syrian government says hundreds of security forces personnel have also died combating "armed terrorist gangs".
What sort of country is it? The family of President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970. The country underwent some liberalisation after Bashar became president in 2000, but the pace of change soon slowed, if not reversed. Critics are imprisoned, domestic media are tightly controlled, and economic policies often benefit the elite. The country's human rights record is among the worst in the world.
Is it ethnically or religiously divided? Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites - the Shia heterodox sect to which Mr Assad belongs - and Christians. Mr Assad promotes a secular identity for the country, but he has concentrated power in the hands of family and other Alawites. Protests have generally been biggest in Sunni-dominated areas.
Are there social and economic issues? Under the sanctions imposed by the Arab League, US and EU, Syria's two most vital sectors, tourism and oil, have ground to a halt in recent months. The IMF says Syria's economy contracted by 2% in 2011, while the value of the Syrian pound has crashed. Unemployment is high, electricity cuts trouble Damascus, and critical products like heating oil and staples like milk powder are becoming scarce.
When did the trouble start? Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on walls at their school in the southern city of Deraa. Security forces opened fire during a march against the arrests, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims' funerals, killing another person. People began demanding the overthrow of Mr Assad.
How did the government react? The government has tried to deal with the situation with a combination of minor concessions and force. President Assad ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution offering multi-party elections. But at the same time, the authorities have continued to use violence against unarmed protesters, and some cities, like Homs, have suffered weeks of intense bombardment.
Who are the protesters? What do they want? The opposition is deeply divided. Several groups formed a coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), but it is dominated by the Sunni community and exiled dissidents. The SNC disagrees with the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC) on the questions of talks with the government and foreign intervention, and has found it difficult to work with the Free Syrian Army - army defectors seeking to topple Mr Assad by force.
How have other countries reacted? International pressure on the Syrian government has been intensifying. It has been suspended from the Arab League, while the EU and the US have imposed sanctions. However, there has been no agreement on a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to violence. Although military intervention has been ruled out by Western nations, there are increasing calls to arm the opposition.
What will happen next? Correspondents say a peaceful solution seems unlikely. Syria's leadership seems intent on crushing resistance and most of the opposition will only accept an end to the regime. Some believe the expected collapse of Syria's currency and an inability to pay salaries may be the leadership's downfall. There are fears, though, that the resulting chaos would be long-lasting and create a wider conflict.

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