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Syria Conflict: Damascus Suffers Destruction, Hunger As Fighting Hits Country's Heart

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SYRIA CONFLICT DAMASCUS
In this photo taken during a government-organized tour, Syrian soldiers stand next to burned cars after they regained control of the district of Midan, in the southern part of Damascus, Syria, Friday, July 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi) | AP

MASNAA, Lebanon — After a bloody, weeklong siege in the Syrian capital, residents who stayed behind are facing hours-long lines for gasoline and bread, stinking piles of garbage in the streets and scenes of destruction unimaginable in a city that had long been spared the worst ravages of the country's uprising.

It's a gruesome turn for the distinguished Middle Eastern city of Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a sign that Syria's civil war appears doomed to escalate.

Residents in the hardest hit neighborhoods of Midan, Qaboun and Barzeh picked through the rubble of destroyed homes, charred cars and mangled electricity cables. Even as the government claimed on Monday to have largely put down rebels in the city, some residents fearing more violence continued to trickle into neighboring Lebanon, where thousands fled during the height of the fighting last week.

"I never thought I would see gunmen clashing with the army on the streets of Damascus, people fleeing their homes," said Nahed, a 32-year-old peace activist in Damascus. "It's like Lebanon but in reverse," she said, referring to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah when thousands of Lebanese poured into Syria, looking for safety.

For a year and a half, residents of the Syrian capital went about their daily business, largely oblivious as President Bashar Assad's forces and rebels laid waste to towns and cities across the country. Restaurants, cafes and night clubs filled up every night with members of a Damascus elite convinced that the regime would keep the fighting away from its heavily guarded seat of power.

So when the "Damascus Volcano" – as anti-regime activists call the unprecedented eruption of rebels in the capital – struck on July 14, many in the city of 1.7 million were unprepared.

The veneer of calm was shattered and the once bustling, tourist-friendly metropolis was transformed into a virtual war zone as government forces unleashed their full might against the insurgents. Helicopter gunships and tanks blasted rebel positions in neighborhoods. Artillery batteries fired down from the mountains overlooking Damascus into the city.

Long lines built up at the border crossing into Lebanon with cars packed with families and their belongings. Some who stayed packed "getaway bags" with passports, diplomas, money and other valuables in case they had to run for their lives.

"I feel very bad leaving Damascus," said a woman from the upscale Mazzeh district, which also saw fighting, after she arrived in a taxi at the Masnaa border crossing Monday. "I was crying the whole night yesterday when I said goodbye to my family."

"I never thought this would happen in Mazzeh," she said quietly. Wearing a shirt and blue jeans, she held her blond, 8-year-old daughter's hand and said she would spend a week in Lebanon until the situation became clearer. She, like others who spoke to The Associated Press, refused to give her name for security reasons.

For days, Damascenes slept and woke up to the crackle of machine-gun fire and thud of explosions. Gray smoke covered parts of the city's skyline. Tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled onto streets as soldiers set up checkpoints, searching people's cars and asking for IDs. Trash piled up as garbage collectors stopped working.

The government virtually sealed the city off from its suburbs in an attempt to keep more rebels from infiltrating. While the heaviest battles were concentrated in specific, rebellious districts, random shootings broke out across Damascus, including firefights near the prime minister's office and only a few hundred meters (yards) from parliament. Residents locked themselves in to their homes. Most shops shut down.

"I haven't gone out in days, it's crazy outside. Everyone is shooting at everyone else and I don't want to die by mistake," a 28-year-old resident of Mayssat, a neighborhood close to the hard hit Rukneddine district, told AP by telephone over the weekend.

Activists say dozens were killed in the days of fighting, though there is still no firm number.

The hardships coincided with the start over the weekend of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslim families typically meet over lavish meals to break their daylong fast and watch seasonal TV soap operas. Instead, they now tune in to satellite stations for news of fighting.

Until last week, Assad had largely succeeded in shielding Damascus from the violence gripping the rest of the country since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011. Activists say more than 19,000 people have died in the crackdown that has since given way to a grueling civil war as rebels got better armed.

There had been occasional violence in the capital, including car bombs and suicide attacks that hit military facilities and regime gunfire on protesters. But the weeklong rebel assault was by far the fiercest and most sustained. Amid the fighting, the rebels also carried out a stunning bombing inside a regime security facility that killed four senior figures involved in directing the crackdown on the uprising.

By Monday, Syrian forces appeared to have regained control of most of the capital as government forces kicked down doors and searched homes for rebels. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a press conference that the security situation was now "much better."

"This is an emergency situation and it will not last more than a day or two and the situation will return to normal," he said.

Government workers and regime supporters sprayed "we love you" on walls in Midan, but graffiti demanding freedom could still be seen in some areas. Dozens of destroyed, burnt out cars, shell-pocked homes and torn, mangled electricity cables were on display, witnesses told AP.

At the normally bustling market in the Shaalan district Monday, people waiting in line for bread got into an argument that illustrated the divisions in the country. One woman accused the rebels of bringing disaster on the country.

"What about the helicopters shelling people in Mazzeh?" someone shouted in reply.

"Everyone who carries a weapon deserves that," came the answer.

"I pray to God that all this will end soon," a third woman said despondently, ending the conversation.

Shops in the battleground districts remained closed. So were the fancy shopping centers in the Kfar Souseh neighborhood, an area neighboring Mazzeh that houses new, high rise buildings and the Foreign Ministry. Only the supermarket at the Sham City Center mall opened for few hours over the weekend, causing a rush of residents trying to snap up short supplies of vegetables, fruits, meat and bread.

"I could not get a loaf of bread or any kind of vegetables," said Lana, a 29-year-old mother of two.

Across the city, long lines formed at gas stations and bakeries.

Hadeel, a 29-year-old marketing manager, ventured out on Monday after days huddled in Mazzeh to try to fill up her car's tank in case she and her family had to flee. But the line was too long. "I couldn't, I didn't want to stay in line for hours," she said.

At the Masnaa border crossing, not everyone was driving into Lebanon.

Majed, a 45-year-old taxi driver from Damascus' Midan district, was heading home, "now that the state has carried out its duties and cleansed" the area.

"The people of Damascus are not used to wars," he said. "There was real fear in Damascus last week."

___

Karam reported from Beirut.

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lebanon Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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syria This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)


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lebanon A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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syria Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)


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lebanon Lebanese commandos ride in an armored personnel carrier in preparation to enter the area of clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. The civil war in Syria is affecting its fragile, tiny neighbor Lebanon in countless ways and has already spilled over into sectarian street clashes, kidnappings and general government paralysis.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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