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Bomb Blast, Gunfire in Central Damascus

Saturday, 11 Aug 2012 10:21 AM


BEIRUT — Syrian TV says authorities are pursuing a "terrorist group" that detonated a bomb in central Damascus and opened fire on civilians there. The TV says the bomb blast went off in Marjeh, a major square in downtown Damascus.

No further details were immediately available but residents in the capital, Damascus, reported hearing a loud explosion followed by gunfire that lasted several minutes Saturday. Authorities routinely refer to rebels trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad's regime as "terrorists."

Syrian troops say they have pushed the rebels from the capital after intense, week-long battles last month. But opposition fighters continue to stage hit-and-run attacks and are active in the suburbs around the city.

Syrian forces pounded a suburb of the capital with mortars and artillery shells Saturday, a day after rebels operating in the town abducted a pro-government TV crew, activists said. It was the latest attack on pro-regime media and the latest abduction blamed on rebels in Syria's escalating civil war.

Imad Sarah, general manager of Al-Ikhbariya station, says that the three journalists and their drivers were seized Friday in al-Tal suburb just north of Damascus by an armed group while they were covering violence in the area. The station blamed the rebels and said efforts were under way to release them.

Rebels deny they target the media and have not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks. The rebel movement is highly splintered and different groups may have different standards as to whom they consider a valid target. But much of the opposition says pro-government media outlets are legitimate targets as mouthpieces of the Syrian regime.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army are known to be active in al-Tal and other Damascus suburbs that have witnessed fierce clashes between the two sides on almost daily basis in recent weeks. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least six people were killed Friday in heavy shelling on al-Tal, causing many residents to flee the area.

The group, which relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said rebels targeted a tank during the clashes in al-Tal, setting it on fire. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist in al-Tal, said government forces had been attacking al-Tal since Thursday. He said they were using helicopters to strafe the town and have bombarded it with mortars and artillery shells, adding that two hospitals in the area were targeted.

"The situation is very grave and the town is completely besieged," he said, adding that many residents of al-Tal were refugees from nearby suburbs that have been hard hit from the government crackdown.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, stepped up efforts to tackle the worsening Syria crisis on Saturday when she arrived in Turkey for talks with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and members of the Syrian opposition.

Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tried to snuff out resistance in Aleppo, the country's biggest city, but rebels said they would hit back despite losing ground and running low on ammunition.

"We can handle the bombing," rebel commander Abu Thadet said in Aleppo. "It's the snipers that are making it hard."

In Aleppo, Syria's economic hub and a crucial arena in the conflict, rebels were regrouping at the headquarters of the Seyoof al-Shahbaa brigade after retreating from Salaheddine -- the district that controls access to the city from the south. They were preparing to return to the district, a former rebel stronghold, to join other fighters.

"The reason we retreated from Salaheddine this week is due to a lack of weapons," commander Thadet said.

Weapons merchants say they are out of stock and bullet prices have gone up 70 percent in the past two days, Thadet told Reuters.

Fighting has ebbed and flowed over the past week but Assad's forces were in control of much of Salaheddine on Saturday.

Thadet leads a brigade of 30 fighters but 10 are wounded, mostly by sniper fire. Snipers are positioned even in areas that rebels claim to control.

His men have broken down walls within apartment buildings to make covered paths through Salaheddine as the open streets are too dangerous.

While Assad's grip on the country has been eroded as the uprising has gathered momentum, his forces have consistently demonstrated their overwhelming firepower advantage against lightly armed rebels.











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Saturday, 11 Aug 2012 10:21 AM
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