Syrian troops and gunmen clash in the capital

BASSEM MROUE Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian security forces clashed Monday with gunmen in an upscale neighborhood of the capital Damascus that is home to embassies and senior officials in one of the worst confrontations in the tightly-controlled city center in the country's yearlong uprising.

A resident of the western Mazzeh district said automatic rifles and machineguns were used in the two-hour clash that ended at about 4 a.m. local time. "We also heard three strong explosions," said the man who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.

He added that the clash was close to the Swiss embassy and the home of Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat, the deputy chief of staff for security affairs who is married to President Bashar Assad's sister, Bushra.

Armed rebels are active in Damascus' suburbs and satellite towns but rarely venture into the heart of the capital where Assad's troops are deployed in force.

Damascus has been largely free of the daily shootings and deaths reported across the country since the uprising against Assad began in March last year. But the capital has witnessed several major bomb attacks targeting security facilities, most recently on Saturday. The government blames "terrorists" for the bombings but the opposition says that the regime itself may be carrying them out to discredit the uprising.

An activist in the capital said the Monday morning clashes occurred near the Political Security Directorate building. He said the clashes were followed with raids by security forces who were searching for the attackers.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists throughout Syria, said 18 of Assad's troops were wounded in the clashes. It described the clashes "as the most violent of its kind and closest to security centers in Damascus since the revolution began."

On Saturday, three suicide bombings in Damascus killed 27 people. Two of them also targeted government security buildings.

On Sunday, an explosion killed two and wounded 30 in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.

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