BEIRUT (AP) — Gunmen assassinated an army general in Damascus on Saturday in the first killing of a high ranking military officer in the Syrian capital since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March, the state-run news agency said.
The attack is a sign that violence in Syria is reaching the tightly controlled capital, which has been relatively quiet compared to other cities. Though there was no immediate claim of responsibility, it could also indicate that rebel soldiers who have risen up in numerous cities and towns are trying to step up action in Damascus.
SANA news agency said three gunmen opened fire at Brig. Gen. Issa al-Khouli in the morning as he left his home in the Damascus neighborhood of Rukn-Eddine. Al-Khouli was a doctor and the chief of a military hospital in the capital.
Such assassinations are not uncommon outside Damascus and army officers have been killed in the past, mostly in the restive provinces of Homs and Idlib.
Violence in other parts of the country left at least 11 people dead as regime troops pushed into rebel-held neighborhoods in the restive central city of Homs and shelled the mountain town of Zabadani, north of Damascus.
The U.N. estimates that 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March. But that figure is from January, when the U.N. stopped counting because the chaos in the country has made it all but impossible to check the figures. Hundreds are reported to have been killed since.
The Assad regime says terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country are behind the uprising, not people seeking to transform the authoritarian regime. The Syrian government says more than 2,000 soldiers and police officers have been killed by terrorists since March.
Syria's turmoil began with peaceful protests against Assad's rule, sparking the fierce regime crackdown. But it has since grown more militarized as army defectors and armed protesters formed a group known as the Free Syrian Army. The FSA has carried out attacks on the military and sought to secure control of opposition-dominated areas, as well as defend against regime assault.
After Russia and China last weekend vetoed a Western and Arab attempt at the U.N. to pressure Assad to step down, the FSA's commander said there was no choice now but armed force to oust the president. Western and Arab countries are considering forming a coalition to help Syria's opposition, though so far there is no sign they intend to give direct aid to the FSA.
The president of Iran, one of Assad's top allies, warned Arab countries on Saturday not to give aid to the opposition.
Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters in Tehran on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ahmadinejad said countries in the region that have never held free elections are trying to write a "prescription for freedom and elections for others" with the help of the United States.
"This is a very bitter and the most ridiculous joke of history," Ahmadinejad said.
For the past week, Syrian forces have been bombarding rebel-held neighborhoods in Homs, aiming to regain control of one of the main cities involved in the uprising. Activists say more than 400 people have been killed in the campaign.
On Saturday, Syrian troops shelled the Baba Amr district in Homs, killing at least four people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees said 15 people were killed in Baba Amr on Saturday.
Troops and rebel soldiers battled in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, said Mohammed Doumany, an activist there. The Observatory said troops stormed the Grand Mosque in Douma and detained a number of people who were inside.
The Observatory also reported a rare clash between troops and defectors late Friday in the northern Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun but had no details. It said troops shot dead an activist in the area.
The group also said three people were killed Saturday in the rebel-held mountain town of Zabadani near the Lebanon border when troops shelled it, and reported another three killed in the southern province of Daraa when troops conducted a sweep in the village of Msaifra.
The violence came a day after two suicide car bombers struck security compounds in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 28 people. The blasts were the first significant violence in an industrial center that has largely stood by Assad during the 11-month uprising against his rule.
Anti-Assad activists denied any involvement and accused the regime of setting off Friday's blasts to smear the opposition. State media touted the bombings as proof the regime faces a campaign by terrorists.
In neighboring Turkey, Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said late Friday that five Turks, including a former intelligence officer, were being questioned for allegedly kidnapping and handing over to Damascus a Syrian army officer, who had sought refuge in Turkey.
Lt. Col. Hussein Harmoush was one of the first officers to defect after the uprising began. Harmoush, of the so-called Free Officers Movement, put out videos urging the army to stand by the people instead of the regime and saying he had been ordered by his commanders to fire on protesters.
After his return to Syria, state TV aired an interview with him in September in which he retracted his earlier comments. His fate since is unknown.
Associated Press writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.