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Syrian rebels target rich suburb

Gun battles between security forces and rebels have broken out in an upmarket Damascus district home to embassies and senior government officials.

It was one of the most serious confrontations in the tightly controlled capital since the anti-government uprising began a year ago. At least three people were killed.

The clash was a show of force by the opposition fighters, who recently suffered several major setbacks when they were driven out of strongholds in the northern city of Idlib and the central city of Homs. It demonstrated that they can strike at the heavily guarded heart of the capital.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists throughout Syria, said 18 government troops were wounded in the fighting. It described the clashes "as the most violent of its kind and closest to security centres in Damascus since the revolution began."

Damascus has been largely free of the daily shootings and killings reported across the country since the uprising against president Bashar Assad began. But the capital has witnessed several major bombings targeting government security buildings, most recently on Saturday.

The government blames "terrorists" for the bombings but the opposition says that the regime itself may be carrying them out to discredit the uprising. The US has suggested al Qaida may be entering the fray in Syria.

The gunbattles in Damascus came hours after a team sent by the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan arrived in the capital,

The state-run news agency SANA reported that the fighting broke out when security forces stormed an apartment used as a hideout by an "armed terrorist" group in the Mazzeh neighbourhood. The report said the forces killed two of the gunmen and arrested the third while a member of the security forces was killed.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, gave an account of the same clash. He said several "armed groups of defectors" came from one of the suburbs of the capital and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the house of an army brigadier general. They then entered a building where they were chased by security forces.

Mazzeh is home to affluent Syrians of different sects, and is the first Damascus neighbourhood that people coming from Lebanon reach. It is about a mile from a military airport.

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