By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Syrian opposition activists reported heavy shelling Wednesday in Damascus, the capital, as authorities in neighboring Lebanon said a cease-fire had taken hold in a city in that country that has become a center for spillover violence.
The Syrian military has mounted a campaign this week to root out rebel fighters and sympathizers in several areas of Damascus and its suburbs, including the Kfar Souseh and Nahr Aisha districts, according to antigovernment activists.
The shelling of the two districts Wednesday could have been aimed at opposition mortar teams that have recently targeted a military airport, the Associated Press reported.
Several residents of Damascus reached by telephone Wednesday said shelling could be heard across the city.
The reports of a renewed government push in the capital follows the departure of United Nations monitors, dispatched to Syria four months ago in an ill-fated bid to help end the escalating violence. The monitors’ exit highlights the failure of diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict.
At least 17,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since antigovernment protests broke out almost 18 months ago, the U.N. says. The protests evolved into an armed rebellion that the government of President Bashar Assad has battled with troops, tanks, artillery and air power.
More than 200,000 Syrians have fled the country because of the violence and more than 1 million have been displaced within its borders, according to various estimates.
One opposition group, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported at least 120 people killed in Syria in shelling and clashes Wednesday, including more than 50 in the capital. Reports of daily death tolls topping 100 have become routine, though there is no way to verify the figures.
Government news reports offered no details on security operations in Damascus.
Last month, rebels based in a number of city neighborhoods fought government forces in a battle that was ultimately put down by troops. The focus of the rebellion then shifted to the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels seized several neighborhoods a month ago but have so far failed to consolidate control against government forces.
On Wednesday, the official Syrian news agency reported that the military was routing “mercenary terrorists” — armed rebels — in Aleppo. Opposition spokesman have repeatedly denied government assertions that the army is regaining control of the city, parts of which have suffered extensive damage in the weeks of urban combat.
Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s major cities, were largely insulated from the violence raging elsewhere until street battles erupted in both last month.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, officials said a cease-fire went into effect Wednesday sectarian violence flared in the northern city of Tripoli, a hotbed of violence related to the fighting in Syria.
At least 10 people were reported killed in Tripoli and scores injured in gun battles between residents of rival neighborhoods — one a pro-Assad stronghold, the other a bastion of support for the rebels fighting to oust the Syrian president.
The two districts have seen periodic episodes of violence since the rebellion began in Syria. One of them, Jabal Mohsen, is overwhelmingly pro-Assad and home mostly to Alawites, the minority Muslim sect that includes Assad. The other, Bab Tabbaneh, is largely Sunni Muslim, the majority group in Syria and the base of support for the rebellion.
The cease-fire followed the dispatch of army units and emergency meetings of lawmakers and religious leaders, Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported. Lebanese troops were dispatched along Syria Street, which divides the two warring neighborhoods. Reports late Wednesday indicated that the gunfire had diminished, though some shots still rang out.
The fighting in Tripoli has renewed fears about the cross-border spread of violence from Syria. Lebanon has seen a spate of kidnappings, cross-border shellings and alleged destabilization plots related to the conflict in Syria. Officials in other nearby nations, including Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, also fear spillover violence.