Damascus in disarray at start of Muslim holy month

By Oliver Holmes REUTERS

BEIRUT | Fri Jul 20, 2012 8:49am EDT

(Reuters) – While President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels battle in several districts of Damascus, residents in the deserted heart of the Syrian capital fear they are at the eye of a storm that could strike soon.

Friday was the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, often a quiet day as daylight fasting begins. But residents in central Damascus said the streets were dead with few signs of security forces around government buildings where there was a heavy presence only days ago.

Assad’s forces are stretched. Rebels have launched bold attacks after getting a morale boost when four top security officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law, were killed by a targeted bomb attack on Wednesday.

Trying to show that authorities still have control, Syrian television aired live footage of central roads and districts. But the insufferable traffic of the cramped Middle Eastern city was missing; only a few cars were moving along its boulevards.

State television said Assad’s forces had cleared the central Midan district of “mercenaries and terrorists”. Rebel sources confirmed a withdrawal to escape heavy bombardment but said this was only tactical and temporary.

How Assad has planned to secure central Damascus is unclear, but rebels are sheltering in outlying districts, where there are escape routes to farmlands.

“I cannot see the Free Syrian Army in streets of Damascus, but I cannot see the army either,” a Damascene resident said after touring central neighborhoods of the capital, from the Old City to the main Umayyad Square.

Only a few mini-markets were open, while all non-essential shops were shuttered.

In the turmoil, Ramadan has little significance for many.

“If the regime stays and the killing continues then the feeling we used to get during Ramadan — the family getting together, a sense of community and togetherness — will be gone,” said Ghassan, a 52-year-old business owner who asked to only use his first name.

“Now there is disunity. We don’t even know where our family members are. Everyone is displaced. It’s not Ramadan like this.”

Power in many part of the capital had been cut as the temperature rose to above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on Friday.

“My thoughts are with the revolution more than with Ramadan. We normally get a lot more prepared for Ramadan but now people are dying in heaps, destruction is everywhere,” said Lina, 40, a housewife. “But if the regime falls in these next few days then the significance and meaning of Ramadan will be doubly great.”

THOUSAND FLEE

Many have fled districts of the capital, some to areas that are untouched by fighting and others to neighboring Lebanon.

Up to 30,000 Syrian refugees may have crossed into Lebanon in the past 48 hours, in what would be a sharp increase of people fleeing fighting in Syria, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.

At the hilly Masnaa border crossing on the Lebanese side, Damascenes, many of them wealthy families driving their own air-conditioned cars, made their way past border control.

Some had luggage strapped to the roof but others had only a few belongings, saying they were planning to return when the violence abated.

“The situation is not good, there is a lot of tension. God be with the people who stayed behind because they will be paying,” said a woman from al-Tal, a suburb of Damascus that has seen fierce clashes.

One family car had its back window smashed. Its owner, Walid Kabbani, said it was shattered by the explosion of a shell that fell into his southern district of Mezzeh.

The armed insurgency against 42 years of family rule by Assad and his late father pit the ruling elite, from the country’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, against the Sunni Muslim-led protest movement.

Hundreds are dying by the day, adding to a death toll of more than 17,000 in 16 months of protests and a violent government crackdown that spawned a militarized revolt.

In a sectarian twist to the crisis, one resident said there was a brief battle between armed residents from a Shi’ite neighborhood with strong loyalty to Assad and militants from a neighboring Sunni district who support the rebellion.

After a few hours, elders made a truce, the resident said.

The reports could not be confirmed. The Syrian government restricts access by international journalists.

In the vast courtyard of the Umayyad mosque, a dozen families displaced by fighting in the Damascus suburbs sat on the stone floor surrounded by green and gold mosaics.

“All the cheap hotels in central Damascus are full,” said a poor lady who had come from the battered Kafar Souseh district. Staff at the mosque, once a main tourist attraction in Damascus, said refugees could sleep within its ancient walls.

(Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Afif Diab and Issam Abdullah at the Masnaa border crossing; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Categories: Asia, Syria

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