BEIRUT -- Syrian security forces clashed Monday with gunmen in an upscale neighborhood of the capital Damascus that is home to embassies and senior officials in one of the worst confrontations in the tightly-controlled city center in the country's yearlong uprising. At least three people were killed.
The clash deep in Mazzeh district in west Damascus shows the shifting nature of the conflict in Syria, and suggests that rebels might be trying to offset government morale gains from recent successful offensives against opposition strongholds areas in the north and center of Syria by striking close to where senior regime members live.
Damascus has been largely free of the daily shootings and deaths reported across the country since the uprising against Assad began in March last year. But in addition to gunbattles in Mazzeh and in the suburbs, the capital has witnessed several major bomb attacks targeting security facilities, 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.
Monday's fighting broke out when security forces stormed an apartment used as a hideout by an "armed terrorist" group in Mazzeh after evacuating the building of all inhabitants, the state-run news agency SANA said.
It added that the forces killed two of the gunmen and arrested the third while a member of the security forces also lost his life. SANA gave no further details.
A resident of the western Mazzeh district said automatic rifles and machine guns were used in the two-hour clash that ended at about 4 a.m. local time. "We also heard three strong explosions," said the man who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.
He added that the clash was close to the Swiss embassy and the home of Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat, the deputy chief of staff for security affairs who is married to President Bashar Assad's sister, Bushra.
Armed rebels are active in Damascus' suburbs and satellite towns but rarely venture into the heart of the capital where Assad's troops are deployed in force.
The new fighting shows that rebels can still strike in the heart of the capital despite successful government offensive in the past weeks in the suburbs of Damascus, in the central city of Homs and the northern region of Idlib.
The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed in the year-long uprising.
Syrian authorities claim the opposition is made up of "terrorist" groups carrying out a foreign conspiracy.
An activist in the capital said the Monday morning clashes occurred near the Political Security Directorate building. He said the clashes were followed with raids by security forces who were searching for the attackers.
The Local Coordination Committees activist group reported a heavy presence of security troops as well as pro-government gunmen known as shabiha in Mazzeh. It added that many police vehicles were patrolling the area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists throughout Syria, said 18 of Assad's troops were wounded in the clashes. It described the clashes "as the most violent of its kind and closest to security centers in Damascus since the revolution began."
The rebel Free Syrian Army, which includes thousands of army defectors, have claimed responsibility in the past for attacks against regime forces.
The group's leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, refused to comment on the fighting in Damascus when contacted by The Associated Press by telephone. "This is a sensitive military matter that we cannot comment about," he said from Turkey.
On Saturday, three suicide bombings in Damascus killed 27 people. Two of them also targeted government security buildings.
On Sunday, an explosion killed two and wounded 30 in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.
The Observatory said troops shelled the central village of Qalaat al-Madiq in central Hama province heavily damaging two homes. It added that troops stormed the northern village of Ebdita and set about 60 homes on fire.
The group said gunmen opened fire at a car in the northern province of Idlib killing an army lieutenant colonel and wounding two other members of the military.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue