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Rebels Rain Down Mortars On Damascus

Rebels from the Free Syrian Army walk on a street in Damascus in this picture provided by Shaam News Network and taken March 23. The Syrian capital came under mortar fire on Sunday and Monday. (Reuters /Landov)

The author is a Syrian citizen living in Damascus who is not being further identified out of safety concerns.

Syrian rebels carried out mortar and rocket attacks on Sunday and Monday in what appeared to mark a new escalation in the fighting over the Syrian capital.

At least two people were killed and dozens injured, according to the state-run media in Syria. The United Nations announced it was relocating about half of the 100 members of its international staff in the city for security reasons.

The rebels have periodically attacked Damascus with mortar shells before, but the magnitude of Monday's attack, felt in every city neighborhood, was much more intense than before and left many Damascenes feeling caught in the crossfire.

The two sides exchanged fire all night, which included sporadic shelling from the government batteries placed in the hills around the capital. Damascenes are now used to those sounds and accustomed to interrupted sleep punctured by blasts and thuds. On a bad night, it sounds like continuous loud thunder.

An Early Morning Blast

But Monday morning, a loud boom jolted me from bed. It was louder and closer than usual.

We heard similar blasts on Sunday evening too, when rebels fired a rocket and mortar shells at state television headquarters.

The early morning blast Monday was just the beginning. More explosions roared, one after the next. Two dozen, maybe more. I lost count.

Then, countershelling from government missile batteries began. Everyone in Damascus can recognize that sound. But Monday, even those sounded different more sustained and angry than usual.

Activists later said the government had fired from a huge missile battery in the city, and not just ones in the hills that surround Damascus. This would seem to explain why Damascenes throughout the city heard and felt each retaliatory missile fired from Damascus onto the rebel-held areas on the outskirts.

The attacks and counterattacks went on for several hours.

I had been through similar shooting exchanges two or three times before, the most recent being just last Tuesday, when rebels fired onto the neighborhood of Malki, an affluent residential areas where President Bashar Assad lives. But there was a widespread belief that this was the heaviest such shooting yet in the capital.

Rebel Warnings

Every now and then, Damascus is abuzz with the latest statements from rebels claiming that the "final battle" for Damascus has arrived.

"The shaking of fortresses has begun," a rebel brigade, Liwa al Islam, said in a statement referring to regime targets in the capital.

"Government installations shall be targeted, including presidential, military and intelligence. They will be pounded with surface-to-surface missiles," it added. "We advise our fellow citizen who live near such government targets to hurriedly leave to a more secure location. As God is our witness, you have been forewarned."

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