Fighting Expands in Damascus

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Clashes between Syrian insurgents and loyalist troops in Damascus raged for a second day on Thursday and spread to the suburbs and other areas, activist groups reported. They said fighting also erupted in the large Palestinian refugee neighborhood of Yarmouk on the capital's southern outskirts, which has been drawn into the civil war at least twice in the past few months.

The expanded mayhem, described as some of the worst fighting to afflict Damascus in months, offered further indication that any hope for a diplomatic resolution to the nearly two-year-old conflict has all but evaporated. Those hopes were resurrected last week when the leader of Syria's largest political opposition group suggested holding talks with President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Syria's official news agency, SANA, characterized the clashes on Thursday as terrorist assaults. It said that government forces in at least a dozen suburbs had vanquished or killed many attackers, including some who were disguised as women and others who were caught with antiaircraft weapons. But the scope of the clashes described in the SANA report seemed to corroborate that the fighting had intensified close to the center of government power in Syria, forcing the military to go back into areas it had repeatedly sought to secure.

Among the affected suburbs, for example, was Daraya, famous as an early hotbed of protest against the government and the site of one of the war's deadliest episodes back in August, when the Syrian military stormed Daraya in what it called a "cleansing" operation that left hundreds dead.

The Local Coordination Committees, an anti-Assad network inside Syria, reported what it described as fierce clashes between government forces and fighters of the Free Syrian Army at an entrance to Yarmouk, a longtime Palestinian refugee encampment south of Damascus that is politically delicate. Both Mr. Assad and his opponents have sought the allegiance of the tens of thousands of Palestinians in Syria who were displaced decades ago by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yarmouk was convulsed by fighting in December, when insurgents temporarily seized control, and again in early January.

Anti-Assad activist groups also reported a major explosion near the city of Hama that killed at least 20 government defense workers on Wednesday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain with a network of contacts in Syria, said the victims, including 10 women, had been on a bus heading home from defense factories in the suburbs.

Residents of central Damascus spoke of heavy bombardments of rebel positions by government self-propelled artillery, along with mortar fire, roadblocks and snipers on rooftops. They said that forces loyal to Mr. Assad had been deployed in strength, particularly to protect neighborhoods where wealthy Syrians and diplomats live. Some said the fighting was the most intense in the city since July.

A 50-year-old resident of the affluent Abu Roumana district, who identified himself as Abu Mohammad, said he could hear fighting nearby. "It is very close, and I feel it is next to my house," he said. If the government cannot contain rebels in heavily guarded neighborhoods like his, he said, "what about other districts and suburbs?"

The Syrian conflict has left at least 60,000 people dead, displaced about two million people inside the country and sent 700,000 fleeing to neighboring nations, the United Nations has said in dire warnings in recent weeks about the worsening crisis. Doctors Without Borders, the French medical aid organization, added to the concerns on Thursday with a report that the refugee crisis was especially severe in Lebanon, where 220,000 Syrians have fled. The organization said that many refugees there could not get health care or adequate shelter, and that they subsist in "farms, garages, unfinished buildings and old schools."

Hania Mourtada reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria; Hwaida Saad from Beirut; Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Alan Cowell from Paris.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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