Elite Syrian forces backed by armored personnel carriers stormed part of Damascus on Wednesday, firing machineguns in the air, in the closest deployment of troops to the center of the capital in an 11-month uprising, residents and activists said.
Troops from the Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guards erected roadblocks in main streets of Barzeh neighborhood, a residential neighborhood north of the city center, searched houses and made arrests.
Residents said the troops were looking for opposition activists and members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, which has been providing security for protests against President Bashar Assad in the district.
"They have destroyed the facades of shops and turned back students heading to school. The raids are concentrating on Dahar al-Mustaha and Haret al-Bustan," Mazen, a university student, said by phone from Barzeh.
He said at least 1,000 soldiers had deployed in the district after sealing off its thoroughfares, along with armored personnel carriers, armored jeeps and pick-up trucks with heavy machineguns mounted on them.
The largely Sunni Muslim district has been among the most active in the capital in the protest movement against the 42-year rule of Bashar Asssad and his father, the late President Hafez Assad.
Pro-Assad militiamen from an Alawite suburb in a mountains overlooking Barzeh have managed to suppress the demonstrations for months until the Free Syrian Army began protecting them in the last several weeks, residents said.
A firefight erupted last week in Qaboun neighbourhood, which is adjacent to Barzeh between loyalist forces and Free Syrian Army fighters, indicating the emergence of armed opposition to Assad inside the center of his rule.
Earlier on Wednesday, an explosion hit a major oil pipeline feeding a refinery in the Syrian city of Homs, near a large Sunni Muslim district under bombardment by government forces, residents said.
A large plume of smoke was still rising from the pipeline, which runs near farmland at the edge of Baba Amro district, some two hours after the explosion, they said.
Meanwhile on the diplomatic front, France's foreign minister said on Wednesday it had started negotiating a new UN Security Council resolution on Syria with Russia and wanted to discuss creating "humanitarian corridors" in the country.
"We are renegotiating a resolution at the UN Security Council to persuade the Russians," Alain Juppe told France Info radio. He said the UN General Assembly would vote on a "symbolic" resolution on Thursday that would add to pressure on the Damascus government.
Paris said on Tuesday it had created an emergency fund for aid agencies looking to help the Syrian people and would propose a similar one at an international level next week when countries meet in Tunisia to discuss the escalating crisis.
"The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously proposed to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres should be discussed at the Security Council," he said.
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