BEIRUT — Syrian rebels made a new push into Damascus on Wednesday, clashing heavily with troops in the rebellious suburbs of the capital and firing mortars at a presidential palace and a Palestinian refugee camp, activists said.
The regime stronghold of Damascus has seen a surge in violence this week with some of the fiercest clashes in months. In recent days, opposition fighters also stepped up assaults on high-ranking supporters of President Bashar Assad in the capital.
The rebels also have been trying to break the resistance of a pro-government Palestinian faction, which could drag the half million Palestinian refugees in Syria into the civil war.
The new challenge from rebels in the capital comes as the U.S. and Britain take steps to bolster the fragmented Syrian opposition. British Prime Minister David Cameron said his government planned to change its policy and deal directly with opposition military leaders. Previously, Britain has had contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures inside Syria.
He urged newly re-elected President Barack Obama to join the Britain in opening direct talks with rebel fighters, and said they must do more to end the civil war that has killed more than 36,000, according to activists’ tallies.
Rebels fired several mortar rounds at the Syrian president’s residence in the Muhajireen neighborhood in central Damascus on Wednesday morning, but failed to hit their mark, said Bassam al-Dada, an adviser to the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Col. Riad al-Assad.
“This was a very special operation that was planned for a while,” al-Dada said by telephone.
There are two presidential palaces in Damascus. One is located in Muhajireen district in northwestern part of Damascus, and is known as the Muhajireen Palace. The other residence is known as the People’s Palace and it’s located on Mount Qasioun, overlooking the capital.
Before the uprising began last year, Assad was known to spend much of his time at the Muhajireen Palace, although he used the sprawling compound on Qasioun mountain to receive dignitaries.
Assad’s current whereabouts are unknown, and the rebels’ targeting of the palace was largely a symbolic strike on the Syrian leader’s power.
Wednesday’s fighting was heaviest in the suburbs of Damascus, including in Ghouta and Harasta to the east of the capital, activists said. The Syrian military has been shelling another suburb, Beit Saham, with tanks and mortars, killing at least 18 people in that neighborhood alone, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.
Thaer al-Dimashqi, an activist based in a southern suburb of the capital, said the shelling of Beit Saham also wounded 30 people.
“The situation is catastrophic in the area,” al-Dimashqi said via Skype, adding that the rebels have launched a major attack on southern neighborhoods of the capital and anti-government gunmen have seized control of sections of them.
“The FSA controls large parts of Tadamon but the reaction by the regime has been brutal with intense shelling,” al-Dimashqi said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdul-Rahman confirmed the fighting in Tadamon, and said rebels have been lobbing mortar rounds into a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. The pro-regime faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command has been fighting back, Abdul-Rahman said.