Pro-Assad sectarian group fights rebels in Damascus: activists
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels and a pro-government group clashed near a Shi'ite shrine on the outskirts of Damascus on Thursday, activists said, killing at least three people.
Syria's 17-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has grown increasingly violent and has engulfed many parts of the capital's outskirts.
Thursday's clash about 1 km from the Sayyeda Zainab shrine, a pilgrimage spot for Shi'ites from across the region, appeared to pit men from a local pro-Assad Shi'ite militia against rebels drawn mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority.
Some minorities fear the revolt is being taken over by Sunni Islamists who would marginalize them in a future state.
"The people of Damascus have started fighting themselves. The regime has been trying to incite minority sects through fear and has given some of them arms," said an activist in Damascus, who asked for anonymity.
"The regime has begun shelling the area as well ... We can't tell if it is to stop the clashes or encourage them."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several rockets had fallen on nearby neighborhoods, which are mostly home to the Shi'ite minority. The British-based group said there were three people confirmed dead and at least 16 wounded, many in a critical condition.
Other opposition activists denied there were clashes between rebels and a pro-Assad militia, saying there was only random gunfire as armed forces stormed the area.
The activist who requested anonymity said the pro-Assad group fighting the rebels was from a Shi'ite section of what locals call the "Popular Committees", armed vigilante groups set up by neighborhood.
Residents fear the groups risk creating even bloodier sectarian strife in a conflict that has descended into civil war.
Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.