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Bomb blasts, gunfire in central Damascus

The diversity of Syrian society which includes Sunnis, Christians, Druse, Kurds and Assad's Alawite community makes the possibility of a post-Assad power struggle very likely. Already, the conflict has seen Alawite gunmen participating in mass killings of Sunni civilians, as well as tit-for-tat slayings of Alawites by Sunnis. AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

DAMASCUS: Gunmen simultaneously detonated two roadside bombs and clashed with police in central Damascus Saturday, causing panic but no injuries or damage in attacks that highlighted the deep reach of rebels in the seat of President Bashar Assad's power.

On the capital's edge, Syrian forces pounded a suburb with mortars and artillery shells, a day after rebels operating in the town abducted a pro-government TV crew, activists said. It was the latest attack on pro-regime media and the latest abduction blamed on rebels in Syria's escalating civil war.

One of the blasts went off in central Damascus' Marjeh district, when an explosive device planted under a tree was detonated by remote control as a vehicle carrying soldiers passed by, an official at the site of the blast told The Associated Press. The explosion, which caused no casualties, went off about 100 meters (yards) away from the Four Seasons, one of the most luxury hotels in Damascus.

After the blast, gunmen opened fire on civilians "to provoke panic," the state-run news agency SANA said.

At the same time, the other explosion went off near Tishrin Stadium, less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) away, SANA reported.

The news agency said security agents were pursuing the attackers in both incidents, referring to them as terrorists - the term authorities routinely use for rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad's regime.

Residents in Damascus reported hearing a loud explosion followed by gunfire that lasted several minutes Saturday.

Syria's security forces say they pushed the rebels from the capital after intense, week-long battles last month. But opposition fighters continue to stage hit-and-run attacks and are active in the suburbs around the city. Explosions in the capital have become increasingly common as Syria's civil war escalates. There has been series of suicide attacks whose perpetrators are unknown, and on Aug. 18 rebels carried out a sophisticated bombing of a regime security building that killed four members of Assad's inner circle.

The seemingly intractable, 17-month-old conflict in Syria has defied all international attempts to calm the bloodshed which human rights activists say has killed at least 20,000 people.

On Friday, armed men snatched three journalists from the pro-regime TV station Al-Ikhbariya and their drivers while they were coving violence in the al-Tal suburb just north of Damascus, the station's general manager Imad Sarah said. The station blamed "terrorists" and said efforts were under way to release them.

Rebels deny they target the media and have not claimed responsibility for any attacks against pro-regime journalists. The rebel movement is highly splintered and different groups may have different standards as to whom they consider a valid target. But much of the opposition says pro-government media outlets are legitimate targets as mouthpieces of the Syrian regime.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army are known to be active in al-Tal and other Damascus suburbs that have witnessed fierce clashes between the two sides on an almost daily basis in recent weeks. At least six people were killed Friday in heavy shelling on al-Tal, causing many residents to flee the area, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria.

During the clashes, rebels targeted a tank during the clashes in al-Tal, setting it on fire, the Observatory said. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist in al-Tal, said government forces had been attacking the district since Thursday. He said they were using helicopters to strafe the town have bombarded it with mortars and artillery shells, adding that two hospitals in the area were targeted.

"The situation is very grave and the town is completely besieged," he said, adding that many of the residents of al-Tal were refugees from nearby suburbs that have been hard hit from the government crackdown.

Kidnappings have become increasingly common as the civil war escalates in Syria.

Syrian rebels last week intercepted a bus carrying 48 Iranians in a Damascus suburb and seized them. Rebels claimed the men are military personnel, including some members of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, who were on a "reconnaissance mission" to help Assad's crackdown.

Iran, however, says the 48 were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus.

In Paris, an Iranian opposition group challenged Tehran's account by claiming Saturday at least seven of the captives as active members of the Revolutionary Guard. The statement by the People's Mujahedeen Organization gave names and ranks - ranging from brigadier general to colonel - for those it claims are part of the group held by the Syrian rebels. The list describes all the alleged Revolutionary Guard members as being from Iran's West Azerbaijan region along the borders with Iraq and Turkey.

The opposition group's claims could not be independently verified. Iranian authorities had no immediate comment.

The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels have also seized 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims who have been held in northern Syria since May.

Media close to the state have also become a target. Al-Ikhbariya is privately-owned but strongly supports Assad's regime.

In June, gunmen raided Al-Ikhbariya's headquarters south of Damascus, killing seven employees. In a separate incident, a reporter and a cameraman for the station were wounded when bullets hit their car while covering violence in central Syria.

On Tuesday, a bomb blast ripped through the headquarters of Syrian state TV in Damascus, wounding several employees and causing heavy damage.

A Syrian-based Sunni militant group posted on jihadi web forums that it had kidnapped and executed a prominent Syrian television broadcaster, who had been reported missing since July 19. The al-Nusra Front announced that the presenter for the Syrian "Talk of the Town" program, had been captured and put on trial before being executed.

 

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