Syrian government forces used tanks and helicopters against insurgents in several suburbs of Damascus Wednesday, anti-government activists said. Helicopters flew above as artillery and gunfire was heard in the suburbs of Harasta and Irbin.
[March 19, 2012]Residents and activists in the heart of a heavily guarded and wealthy district of Damascus said it was extraordinary to see such clashes in a well-defended area of Damascus so close to crucial security installations and the homes of powerful figures.
“It’s the first time something happened so close and so loud,” said a businesswoman, reached by telephone, who lives a short drive from the center of the fighting and who declined to give her name. “We stayed awake and couldn’t sleep till around 5 a.m.”
The fighting started around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. with several explosions, activists and residents said, followed by automatic-weapons fire and helicopters circling with searchlights, in a wealthy area of the city’s Mezzeh district that is home to business people, United Nations offices and diplomatic residences. Smoke was seen rising near an upscale supermarket and the high-rise Tala Tower. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in London, said its informants reported that at least 18 members of the security forces were killed in the clashes.
Mezzeh is a sprawling area on the western edge of Damascus, one of the first city panoramas that greets visitors arriving on the Damascus-Beirut highway named for Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father who ruled for 30 years.
The West Villas section of Mezzeh, where the nighttime fighting took place, is a neighborhood of stand-alone houses across the highway from a military airport. It is home to wealthy Syrians of a mix of ethnic backgrounds and political persuasions, many of whom live cosmopolitan lives and have a foothold abroad, in the form of business or dual citizenship.
To its north is Mezzeh 86, a less wealthy area home to many Alawites, members of the security forces, and, some residents say, the shabiha, a term for pro-government gangs that have been unleashed against the government’s opponents. Activists with the Local Coordinating Committees, a coalition of Syria-based groups, reported that large numbers of security vehicles and shabiha were deployed there by midday on Monday.