Heavy fighting reported in Damascus; U.N., OIC team visit to assess impact of violence


A heavy firefight broke out on Monday between Free Syrian Army rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in a main district of the Syrian capital Damascus that is home to several security installations, witnesses said, as experts from the U.N. and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) began a mission to assess the humanitarian impact of the year-long conflict.

They said the sound of heavy machinegun fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) echoed through the heavily guarded al-Mezze district. There was no immediate word on casualties but residents told Reuters by telephone the fighting was intense.

“There is fighting near Hamada supermarket and the sound of explosions there and elsewhere in the neighborhood. Security police have blocked several side streets and the street lighting has been cut off,” a housewife who lives in the area said.

As many as 47 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian forces across the country, activists at the Local Coordination Committees told Al Arabiya.

Activists said that more than 200 Syrian soldiers have defected in al-Qalmoun region in Damascus suburbs.

The fighting in the capital came after a car bomb ripped through a residential area of Syria’s second largest city Aleppo on Sunday, and as activists reported heavy clashes across the country between state forces and rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.

As hundreds gathered on Sunday in Damascus to mourn victims of car bombings the previous day, activists said security forces beat and arrested people at a march of more than 200 when protesters began shouting “the people want to topple the regime.”

Among those arrested and beaten was Mohammed Sayyed Rassas, a leader of the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change (NCB), an opposition group which had visited China and Russia in attempts to promote dialogue between Assad and the opposition.

Most opposition groups have rejected the NCB over its insistence on non-violence and its stance against foreign intervention.

Security forces also arrested Farzand Omar, a doctor and politician from the party “Building the Syria State,” when he arrived at the Damascus airport from his hometown of Aleppo.

World powers unable to stop violence in Syria

World powers have been unable to stop more than a year of bloodshed in Syria, a country that sits on the fault lines of several regional and ethnic conflicts. Recent army gains against rebel positions have shown no sign of quelling the violence and no negotiated settlement is in sight.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed and humanitarian conditions are grim. The government says about 2,000 members of security forces have been killed. Activists say the year-long conflict has cost more than 9,100 lives.

In Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, state news agency SANA said terrorists were behind the car bomb that killed two people and wounded 30 others when it exploded in a central area close to a state security office and a church.

The explosion came a day after twin blasts on Saturday killed 27 people in Damascus and wounded nearly 100 others.

Aleppo had seen less unrest than much of Syria but has recently been hit with more violence as the revolt spreads and becomes increasingly bloody.

The semi-official news channel al-Ikhbariya said security forces had been tipped off about the bomb in Aleppo and had been moving residents out of the area when it went off. It said the car had been filled with 200 kg (440 lb) of explosives.

Pictures on the SANA website showed building fronts blasted open and aid workers standing near piles of shattered masonry and bomb craters, while Syria TV showed a street corner splattered in blood.

“The explosion came suddenly and the only thing I thought to do was fall to the ground,” a girl told Syria TV, her hands and face covered in shards of glass. “Nothing remained. All the building fronts collapsed. God curse them.”

No group claimed responsibility for the Aleppo attack, and an activist from the opposition’s local Revolutionary Council said the government was behind the explosion.

Reports from Syria are difficult to verify as the government has restricted access to foreign journalists.

The year-long uprising has largely unraveled an alliance between Sunni tribal chiefs and Syria’s ruling Alawite minority forged by Assad’s father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, who used a carrot-and-stick approach to secure the loyalty of the region.

Humanitarian missions

Meanwhile, technical experts from the U.N. and OIC were working in Syria to assess the humanitarian impact of the regime’s deadly crackdown on protests since March 2011.

“The joint OIC-U.N. mission entered Syria on Friday to carry out an evaluation of humanitarian aid,” on a mission led by the Syrian government, OIC Assistant Secretary General Atta al-Mannan Bakhit told AFP.

The mission, with three OIC experts in the team, would cover 15 cities, he added. It would submit a report to the Saudi-based Islamic grouping and the United Nations on the humanitarian needs of the Syrian population.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who held talks in Damascus earlier this month, has said the experts would join the assessment mission to Deraa, Homs, Hama, Tartus, Latakia, Aleppo, Deir al-Zor and rural zones around Damascus.

U.N. experts and staff of the 57-member OIC would “accompany the mission and take the opportunity to gather information on the overall humanitarian situation and observe first-hand the conditions in various towns and cities,” she said.

Amos’ spokeswoman Amanda Pitt told AFP the government-led mission set off on Sunday morning “and proceeded to Homs.”

The U.N. and OIC staff were accompanying the mission “to get a better understanding of the situation and needs in areas round the country and gather information,” she said.

The technical experts would stay in Syria for seven to 10 days, Pitt added.

The United Nations estimates that the past 12 months of violence have forced more than 30,000 Syrians to flee to neighboring states, while another 200,000 have been displaced within the country.

In parallel with the mission Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, has flown to Moscow for talks Monday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the “extremely difficult” humanitarian situation in Syria’s protest centers.

“A daily ceasefire of at least two hours is imperative to allow the evacuation of the wounded,” he said ahead of the mission to Moscow, an ally of Damascus which is seen as having some influence on Syria’s leadership.

A team of experts dispatched by U.N.-Arab League special envoy Annan has also arrived in Syria, where they will remain as long as progress is made on a monitoring operation to end the bloodshed, a spokesman said Monday.

“The mission has arrived. There are five people with expertise in political, peacekeeping and mediation,” Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for Annan 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” which include a monitoring mechanism, the spokesman said.

The joint OIC-U.N. mission entered Syria on Friday to carry out an evaluation of humanitarian aid

Atta al-Mannan Bakhit, OIC