Fighting erupts anew in Damascus

Rebel attacks come after week of relative calm

A man tried to put off a fire in building in central Damacus, which was hit by a mortar shell fired by Syrian soldiers. Fighting erupted amid call for talks with Syria’s government.
Goran Tomasevic /Reuters
A man tried to put off a fire in building in central Damacus, which was hit by a mortar shell fired by Syrian soldiers. Fighting erupted amid call for talks with Syria’s government.

BEIRUT — Syrian insurgents attacked military checkpoints and other targets in parts of central Damascus on Wednesday, antigovernment activist groups reported. The fighting shattered a lull there as prospects for any talks between the antagonists appeared to dim.

The outbreak came a week after the opposition coalition’s top political leader first proposed the surprise idea of a dialogue with President Bashar Assad’s government aimed at ending the civil war. Frustrated about the government’s failure to respond definitively, the opposition leader, Sheik Mouaz al-Khatib, gave it a Sunday deadline.

Some antigovernment activists described the resumption of fighting, which had lapsed for the past few weeks, as part of a renewed effort by rebels to seize control of central Damascus, the Syrian capital, although that depiction seemed highly exaggerated. Witness accounts said many people were going about their business, while others noted that previous rebel claims of territorial gains in Damascus had almost always turned out to be embellished or unfounded.


Representatives of the Military Council of Damascus, an insurgent group, said that at least 33 members of Assad’s security forces in Damascus had surrendered, while others had fled central Al Abasiyeen Square, and that other forces had erected roadblocks on all access streets to the area to thwart the movement of rebel fighters.

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Salam Mohammed, an activist in Damascus, described Al Abasiyeen Square as ‘‘on fire,’’ and a video clip uploaded on YouTube showed a thick column of black smoke spiraling over the area while the sound of shelling could be heard. A voice is heard saying the shelling had started a fire. The Local Coordination Committees, an anti-Assad activist network in Syria, also reported gunfire in nearby streets.

Firas al-Horani, a military council spokesman, said fighters of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group, were in control of Al Abasiyeen Square. He also said, ‘‘The capital, Damascus, is in a state of paralysis at the moment, and clashes are in full force in the streets.’’

It was impossible to confirm Horani’s claims or the extent of the fighting because of Syrian government restrictions on foreign news organizations. But Syria’s state-run media said insurgent claims of combat success in Damascus were false.

“Those are miserable attempts to raise the morale of terrorists who are fleeing our valiant armed forces,’’ said SANA, the official news agency.


Deadly violence also was reported in the Homs province town of Palmyra, the site of a notorious prison where Assad’s father, Hafez, ordered the summary execution of about 1,000 prisoners during an uprising against his family’s grip on power in the 1980s.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group with a network of contacts inside Syria, said two booby-trapped cars exploded near the military intelligence and state security branches, killing at least 12 members of the security forces and wounding more than 20.

The observatory said government forces deployed across Palmyra afterward, engaging in gun battles with insurgents that left at least eight civilians wounded in the crossfire.

SANA also reported an attack but said it was caused by two suicide bombers who had targeted a residential part of the town, killing an unspecified number of civilians.

The new mayhem came as discord appeared to grow within the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the umbrella anti-Assad group, about a proposal made Jan. 30 by Khatib, its leader, to engage in talks with Assad’s government aimed at ending the nearly 2-year-old conflict, which has left more than 60,000 people dead.


Although Khatib’s plan contained a number of conditions, including the release of prisoners, it broke a longstanding principle that Assad must relinquish power before any talks can begin.

Khatib said in an interview with the BBC’s Arabic service from his headquarters in Cairo on Wednesday that his own patience with the Syrian government was running out.