Intense fighting erupts in Syrian capital of Damascus

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BEIRUT (AP) — Palestinian supporters and opponents of Syria‘s regime got swept up in intense fighting in Damascus on Monday while rival rebel groups clashed over control of a border crossing with Turkey, activists said.

The rare infighting among the two groups added a new dimension of chaos to the civil war and heightened fears that if President Bashar Assad falls, the disparate factions battling the regime will turn against one another.

In the capital, a car bomb ripped through the main square of a residential neighborhood known as Mazzeh al-Jabal, killing 11 people and wounding dozens, the SANA state news agency said. The powerful blast caused widespread panic and massive destruction in residential buildings. Television footage showed bloodied people in the street as firefighters worked to put out the blaze.

“The explosion was very strong and broke all the windows in my apartment. I just ran with my son and daughter,” said a woman in tears fleeing the blast site. “I don’t know what happened to those who stayed behind; we couldn’t see anything because of the smoke and flames.”

The neighborhood is inhabited mostly by members of Mr. Assad’s Alawite minority, and residents said members of his security forces and military officers are known to live there, but it was not clear what the exact target was.

The car bomb, along with fierce fighting Monday in two other districts of the capital, was some of the worst violence in Damascus since July, when rebels took over several neighborhoods in the capital in a stunning attack. Within days, a regime counterattack pushed the rebels out of Damascus and recaptured the areas. Shortly after those battles, rebels moved on Syria‘s largest city, Aleppo, and it has become a major front in the civil war since then.

The attacks on Syria‘s two main cities since summer have demonstrated new organization and capabilities of rebel forces as well as a determination to press their uprising despite the deaths of more than 36,000 people in fighting over the last 19 months.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighting in Damascus was concentrated in the southern neighborhood of Tadamon and the outskirts of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.

Damascus-based activist Abu Qais al-Shami told The Associated Press via Skype that the fighting began Sunday night and went on continuously into Monday.

The Observatory and Mr. al-Shami said regime forces are backed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmed Jibril, a radical Palestinian leader and staunch supporter of Mr. Assad‘s.

“Tadamon is being struck with shells, rockets and heavy machine-gun fire,” Mr. al-Shami said. “People are fleeing the area toward safer areas inside the Yarmouk camp.”

A Syrian opposition figure, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the events, said Palestinian fighters who are opposed to Mr. Assad were fighting alongside the rebels in Damascus.

The Observatory had no immediate word on casualties from Monday’s fighting but said eight people were killed in Yarmouk on Sunday night when several mortar rounds landed in the camp.

When Syria‘s unrest erupted last year, the country’s half-million Palestinians at first struggled to stay on the sidelines, but in recent months, many Palestinians began to become involved in the uprising.

The PFLP-GC, however, has remained loyal to Mr. Assad’s regime.

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