A YouTube vido image grab shows shelling in the Damascus rural suburb of Qatanar
A YouTube vido image grab shows shelling in the Damascus rural suburb of Qatanar on March 18, 2012. Fierce clashes erupted on Monday between rebel troops and security forces in a neighbourhood of the Syrian capital that houses many security buildings, activists said. © - AFP/YouTube
A YouTube vido image grab shows shelling in the Damascus rural suburb of Qatanar
Last updated: March 19, 2012

Fierce clashes in Syrian capital

Syria's ally Russia added its voice Monday to rising calls for a truce so aid can be sent to violence-hit cities after deadly clashes rocked a district of the capital near the heart of the embattled regime.

France, meanwhile, pressed the UN Security Council to adopt a statement backing international envoy Kofi Annan's mission to end bloodshed that has cost an estimated more than 9,100 lives in the past year.

President Bashar al-Assad's security forces launched attacks in several regions, opposition activists said.

Pre-dawn fighting in a heavily guarded area of Damascus, the capital's fiercest since the revolt against Assad's regime erupted, came as residents still reeled from deadly weekend bombings.

At least three rebels and a member of the security forces were killed in the upscale western neighbourhood of Mazzeh, state television and monitors said.

"Three terrorists were killed and a fourth was arrested in the fighting between security forces and an armed terrorist gang sheltered in a house of a residential district," the TV reported.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said four rebels were killed.

Mourtada Rasheed, an activist in Damascus, said blasts and heavy shooting could be heard in Mazzeh and two other districts -- Qaboon and Arbeen.

In Mazzeh, overlooked by Assad's clifftop presidential palace and home to several embassies, terrified locals were awakened before dawn by the rattle of gunfire.

In Russia, International Committee of the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is an ally of Damascus and has some influence on the regime.

"The two parties call for the Syrian government and armed groups to immediately agree to a daily humanitarian truce to allow the ICRC access to the wounded and to civilians who need to be evacuated," the foreign ministry said.

Moscow "underscored the need to allow the ICRC access to all detained persons in Syria following the protests" against Assad's regime.

An ICRC spokeswoman said the Moscow meeting was part of Kellenberger's broader efforts to prompt world powers to secure commitments from the regime and rebels to lay down their arms for a few hours each day.

"The ICRC hopes to see concrete results of such meetings on the ground in the coming days and weeks," Victoria Zotikova told AFP.

Kellenberger expressed fears that much of Syria could soon be engulfed in the type of brutal violence recently seen in the flashpoint city of Homs, where hundreds died in more than a month of shelling and a subsequent army assault.

"This is absolutely unacceptable to us," he told ITAR-TASS.

Meanwhile, a mission sent by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on a monitoring operation to end the conflict.

"There are five people with expertise in political, peacekeeping and mediation," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told AFP.

"They will be staying for as long as they are making progress on reaching agreement on practical steps to implement Mr Annan's proposals," he added.

On Monday, France proposed a UN Security Council statement giving strong backing to Annan's efforts.

"The aim now is to find common ground and send a strong message to the Damascus regime," a diplomat in New York said, with French Ambassador Gerard Araud saying Paris hopes for a vote on Tuesday.

The Annan proposal includes a halt to the violence, humanitarian access, the release of detainees held over the past year and withdrawal of security forces from protest cities.

As a condition for ceasefire talks, the Damascus government insisted that the opposition had to lay down its arms, diplomats at the United Nations said.

At the same time, neighbouring countries had to guarantee they would not send weapons to Syrian groups or give political or financial support to the opposition, they told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Separately, technical experts from the UN and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are taking part in a Syrian government-led mission to assess the impact of the deadly crackdown.

The mission to 15 cities, on the first such assignment in Syria since the violence started, was launched in Homs on Sunday.

Monday's clashes in the capital came after twin car bombs ripped through two neighbourhoods of Damascus on Saturday, killing 27 people, according to an interior ministry toll.

An Observatory statement said fresh fighting erupted later on Monday between rebels and security forces in the Qaboon and Barzeh areas of Damascus.

Troops backed by dozens of tanks also raided districts of Deir Ezzor city in eastern Syria, the Observatory said, a day after at least 25 army deserters were killed in seizing its Hamidiyeh district.

Five soldiers, including two officers, were also killed, it said.

And troops bombarded the Bab Sbaa, Khalidiyeh and Karm al-Shami districts of Homs, the monitoring group said.

Troops in the northwestern province of Idlib attacked Abdita, home village of defector Colonel Riyadh Asaad, head of the Turkey-based rebel Free Syrian Army, local activist Nurredin al-Abdo told AFP.

Security forces killed at least nine civilians on Monday -- including a young girl -- in Idlib, Homs and the southern province of Daraa, while a captain who deserted was killed in the central town of Rastan, the Observatory said.

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