Rebels shelled the mainly Alawite Mazzeh 86 district of Damascus
A picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows the site of an explosion in western Damascus. Syrian rebels shelled the area which is home to President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite minority, embassies and government buildings, as they stepped up attacks on his power base. © - - AFP
Rebels shelled the mainly Alawite Mazzeh 86 district of Damascus
Last updated: November 8, 2012

Syrian rebels shell key pro-Assad area in Damascus

Syrian rebels clashed with troops in Damascus Thursday amid mounting violence in the capital, as the Red Cross said it was struggling to cope with the country's worsening humanitarian crisis.

The main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), meanwhile, elected a new leadership heavily packed with Islamists, as Syria's neighbour Turkey said it reserved the right to defend itself amid talks with NATO on deploying Patriot missiles.

Fresh fighting broke out overnight in Damascus in the disputed southern neighbourhood of Qadam and in Mazzeh in the west, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground.

It said 59 civilians, rebels and soldiers were killed in and around Damascus alone on Wednesday, with 133 dead overall across the country.

Rebel forces have in recent days stepped up their attacks on President Bashar al-Assad's power base in the capital and on Wednesday shelled Mazzeh 86, a district mainly populated by members Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Sectarian divides are a key factor in Syria's armed rebellion, with many in the Sunni Muslim majority frustrated at more than 40 years of Alawite-dominated rule.

Air strikes also pounded the rebel-held town of Saqba just outside the capital, while helicopters could be seen circling over the East Ghuta area, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of Damascus, the Britain-based Observatory said.

It says more than 37,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted in March 2011, first as a protest movement and then an armed rebellion after the regime cracked down on demonstrations and opposition activists.

In Geneva, International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer told reporters the aid group was finding it difficult to manage a crisis that has also forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

"The humanitarian situation is getting worse despite the scope of the operation increasing," he said. "We can't cope with the worsening of the situation."

The ICRC, which works in collaboration with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver aid, has "a lot of blank spots" with regard to the needs of the people on the ground, he said.

"There is an unknown number of people in Syria who do not get the aid they need," Maurer said, adding that the Red Cross had no strategy in the country beyond taking action when and where it could.

In the Qatari capital Doha, meanwhile, the umbrella opposition SNC elected a new 40-member all-male general secretariat with Islamists, including at least five Muslim Brotherhood members, accounting for about a third.

Despite calls from Washington for the SNC to be more representative, the group's about 400 members failed to elect a single woman or any Alawites to the leadership.

SNC officials said four members representing women and minorities, including a Christian and an Alawite, would now be added to secretariat, which will on Friday elect 11 members to appoint a successor to outgoing president Abdel Basset Sayda.

Under pressure from Washington to reshape into a widely representative body, the opposition is to hold broader talks Thursday on an initiative by prominent dissident Riad Seif to form a new government-in-exile.

With the violence in Syria often spilling over the country's borders, Turkey confirmed Thursday it was in talks with NATO about the possibility of deploying Patriot surface-to-air missiles on its soil, but insisted it was purely for defence.

"Patriots... are being discussed within NATO. It is only natural for us to take any measure for defence reasons," President Abdullah Gul told reporters, adding that it was "out of the question for Turkey to start a war with Syria".

Media reports have suggested the missiles could be deployed on the Turkey-Syria border to create a partial no-fly zone and allow for the establishment of safe havens inside the country.

Turkey on Thursday also forced an Armenian plane carrying humanitarian aid for Syria to land for an inspection of its cargo, the Anatolia news agency reported.

The cargo plane landed at Erzurum airport in eastern Turkey where teams of police and troops with sniffer dogs began their searches, it said. It was the second time in a month that the Turkish authorities have ordered an Armenian plane heading for Syria to land for security checks.

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