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Syrian rebel group claims attack on ruling party office in Damascus

CAIRO — Rocket-propelled grenades reportedly struck a Damascus office of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Baath Party before dawn Sunday, the first attack of its kind in the capital since an anti-government uprising began last spring.

Few details were available on the unusually brazen attack, which was claimed by a group of military defectors calling itself the Free Syrian Army.

The Turkey-based defectors have joined protesters and appear to be taking the lead in an increasingly armed rebellion that analysts fear will lead to a civil war that could further destabilize the Middle East. The region already is in turmoil from this year’s unprecedented mass uprisings against autocratic regimes.

The Free Syrian Army also claimed to have killed or wounded around 20 soldiers and regime loyalists in a string of attacks on checkpoints in a Damascus suburb this weekend. None of the claims could be independently verified; state media hadn’t noted the alleged incidents as of midday Sunday.

The Free Syrian Army made the claims on its Facebook page, saying the attacks were in retaliation for the regime failing to meet a deadline for releasing prisoners. It called the assault “a number of parallel and synchronized operations in the heart of the capital, Damascus,” and listed each target: the Baath Party building, a political security office, a base and an intelligence office belonging to the Air Force, and a “group of thugs.”

“Members of the brigade used rockets and medium and light weapons, and returned victorious,” the Free Syrian Army statement said.

Independent journalists are banned from working in Syria, so most documentation of the bloodshed comes from activist statements, witnesses reached by phone and grainy amateur videos posted online.

Thabet Salem, a Syrian journalist who lives about half a mile from the Baath Party building in central Damascus, told al Jazeera English that he was awakened just after 4 a.m. by two loud booms. He later learned that the target was a main office for the party, which has controlled Syria for decades.

Salem called the move “a clear-cut escalation” that puts the regime on the defensive, implying that the protest movement could lose some supporters now that it’s beginning to look more like a guerrilla force.

“This confuses the situation,” Salem told al Jazeera English. “It escalates it, and there’s a big question mark for what happens next.”

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist-run online clearinghouse for Syria protest reports, said “several” rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, were fired at the Baath Party building in the Mazraa district and that fire trucks had been dispatched to the scene.

News agencies quoted witnesses in the area saying two RPGs had struck the headquarters. The building was mostly empty because it was so early, and no fatalities were reported.

In November alone, according to SANA state news agency’s reports, at least 112 security forces have been killed in attacks by “armed terrorist groups.” Syrian officials have said more than 1,000 of its forces had died since the uprising began. Rebels also have targeted the railway system and government buildings, the reports said.

Meanwhile, the regime continues to kill protesters by the dozen, with the U.N. now putting the death toll since mid-March at 3,500. Human rights groups, citing reports compiled from activists, say Syrian forces have killed at least 387 civilians since the government agreed in principle Nov. 2 to a proposal put forth by the Arab League, which has suspended Syria’s participation because of the violence.

Activists and analysts say the Arab League initiative was dead on arrival. It called for a ceasefire and for the regime to admit independent monitors, human rights groups and journalists to investigate the killings – all actions the regime so far has resisted.

“The Arab League should insist that Syrian authorities grant its monitors unhindered access to all parts of the country, allow them to operate independently and guarantee the safety of witnesses and staff members,” Human Rights Watch, a New York-based international watchdog group, said in a statement this week.

“The Syrian government has insisted on sending ‘escorts’ when journalists and a U.N. humanitarian team have been allowed to visit since the violence began, contending it was for security,” the statement continued.

The Arab League infuriated protesters by extending a three-day deadline for the regime to stop attacks. The deadline passed Sunday with no letup in the violence from either side.

Assad’s regime, which is stacked with loyalists from his own minority Alawite sect, is largely intact and so far there have been no mass defections of military commanders and ministers that preceded the collapse of other Arab regimes in uprisings this year. Influential business elites also are still in the regime’s corner, though pressure is mounting against them now that the regime is isolated from both Western and Arab powers.

Still, there were no signs that Assad would bend to the latest assault on his family’s 40-year political dynasty despite the near-universal condemnation of his government’s handling of the crisis.

“The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue,” Assad said in an interview this weekend with Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper. “However, I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it.”

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