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Syrian army, rebels clash in Damascus

Members of the Free Syrian Army stand on a checkpoint beside the Al-Moshat school wall in Aleppo, February 10, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman
Members of the Free Syrian Army stand on a checkpoint beside the Al-Moshat school wall in Aleppo, February 10, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

AMMAN (Reuters) - Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fought rebels in Damascus for control of an area just east of the city center on Monday, moving tanks to defend their lines as their opponents also struck targets elsewhere in the capital.

Residents and activists said the army of President Bashar al-Assad sent armored reinforcements to Jobar, a Sunni Muslim district adjacent to the city's landmark Abbasid Square after rebels took over a loyalist position in the area, the third since fighters pushed into Jobar last week, they said.

However, Assad's forces remained well dug in in the center. "The main battle is taking place in Jobar," an opposition activist in Damascus named Amer said. "The rebels appear to be advancing in the eastern sector. But the center of Damascus is crisscrossed with concrete barriers and security is deployed everywhere; we cannot say that they (the rebels) have a real active present in the center."

He said the army appeared to be under so much pressure in Jobar that it had moved tanks there from the southwestern suburb of Daraya, near the highway to the Jordanian border, where it has been battling rebels for two months.

A video posted by a group known as Liwa al-Islam, one of the opposition fighting units around Damascus, showed its members firing a rocket they claimed had a range of 60 km (35 miles), an apparent marked improvement in the arsenal of the opposition.

Sham News Network, an opposition group of media activists, said rebels overran an army barracks in Jobar and had attacked a roadblock in Afif neighborhood overnight. Afif is located near one of Assad's presidential compounds in the foothills of Qasioun Mountain, northwest of the city.

Activists also reported a mortar attack on a police station in the central Damascus neighborhood of Arnous. It was not clear whether the mortars hit the target or if there were casualties.

"The situation is getting very tough. For the first time we have been hearing mortars fall so close," said a woman who lives in the western neighborhood of Mezze.

The Syrian military has been firing heavy artillery and rockets from Qasioun at Jobar and at a series of Sunni Muslim districts that have been at the forefront of the 22-month uprising against Assad.

Assad's core forces, from his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, are based on Qasioun. Their main supply line to coastal bases passes near the contested central city of Homs, 140 km (90 miles) north of Damascus.

Activists reported on Monday clashes in the Qalamoun region on the Damascus-Homs highway, near an army base from where Scud missiles have been fired at rebel-held territory.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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