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Thursday 21 September 2017

Rebels take their fight to heart of Syria's stronghold

BASSEM MROUE in BEIRUT

Bullets and shrapnel shells smashed into homes in the Syrian capital of Damascus overnight as troops battled rebels in the streets, a show of boldness for rebels taking their fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the centre of his power.

For nearly 12 hours of fighting that lasted into the early hours yesterday, rebels armed mainly with assault rifles fought Syrian forces in the heaviest fighting in the Assad stronghold since the 15-month-old uprising began.

UN observers said rebels fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the local power plant, damaging parts of it and reducing six buses to charred shells, according to video the observers filmed of the scene.

Syrian forces showed the regime's willingness to unleash such firepower in the capital. At least three tank shells slammed into residential areas in the central Damascus neighbourhood of Qaboun, an activist said.

Intense exchanges of assault-rifle fire marked the clash, according to residents and amateur video posted online.

At least 52 civilians were killed around the country outside Damascus yesterday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group.

Among them were 20, including nine women and children, who died in heavy, pre-dawn shelling in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against Mr Assad began in March 2011.

Six children were among 10 killed by a shell that exploded in a house they took cover in during fierce fighting in the coastal region of Latakia, the group said.

In a Daraa mosque, a father stood over his son killed in the shelling, swaddled in a blanket in a hooded sweater, amateur video showed. "I will become a suicide bomber!" the father shouted in grief.

Another video showed tens of thousands of Daraa residents burying their slain victims -- singing, dancing and parading the dead in coffins around a large square, giving the mass funeral the appearance of a mass wedding party.

The Damascus violence was a dramatic shift; urban Sunni Syrians had once stayed at arms' length from their mostly rural compatriots, fearing the instability that their leaderless movement would bring.

But a series of massacres of mainly Sunni peasants over the past few weeks have tipped some of their urban brethren in favour of the uprising. One rebel supporter in Qaboun said the recent mass killings made people see rebel fighters more as protectors.

"The regime has forced the rebels into the city. When they commit attacks, or massacres, or arrests, they come in to defend residents," he said.

Sunday Independent

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