Syrian rebels hit Assad's forces in central Damascus

AMMAN Thu Nov 8, 2012 6:56am EST

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels attacked army roadblocks in Midan district in the heart of Damascus on Thursday to relieve pressure on outlying rebel strongholds being pounded by air strikes and artillery, opposition activists said.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces responded by bombarding the densely populated commercial and residential district, situated just outside the Old City walls, killing a woman pedestrian and a worker in a car wash, they said.

State television said "terrorists" had fired a mortar into the district, killing a woman and wounding three people.

It was the first serious clash in Midan since Assad's forces overran the area in July, in an armored offensive that dislodged rebels from footholds in central Damascus.

An opposition activist in the capital, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, said rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles at roadblocks and other army and security positions surrounding the district.

"Rebel sleeper cells inside Damascus have begun moving to relieve pressure on al-Tadamun, al-Qadam and al-Hajar al-Aswad," the activist said.

He was referring to working-class Sunni Muslim districts in the south of the capital, where guerrillas have been attacking loyalist forces despite devastating air raids and shelling.

The fighting, which has intensified in the last few weeks, has resulted in hundreds of casualties and has highlighted the sectarian element in the mostly Sunni revolt against Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Rebels have set off bombs in at least two Alawite areas this week and have assassinated two figures seen as close to the Assad administration.

An Islamist rebel unit based in the southern Hauran region said it had targeted but missed the Syrian leader's palace in Damascus, in an attack underlining the growing boldness of insurgents fighting to end his family's 42 years in power.

It was not possible to verify whether Assad was staying there at the time. He has several residences in the city.

Assad, in an interview with Russia Today, said he would "live and die in Syria", apparently rejecting the idea that a safe exit and foreign exile could be one way to end the 19-month-old conflict that has killed about 38,000 people.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom)

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