Rebels fought government supporters in an upmarket district of Damascus on Monday, in what activists described as some of the fiercest fighting seen in the Syrian capital in the year-long uprising.

At least three people are believed to have been killed in the fighting, which underlined the regime’s continued struggle to stamp out the uprising despite a series of recent military advances, such as in the Baba Amr district of Homs.

The Mezzeh district of the capital echoed with the sound of explosions during clashes which began some time after midnight and which lasted for several hours, activists said.

There were conflicting reports of what sparked the clashes. Authorities “stormed the hide-out of an armed terrorist group”, the state news agency said. Two “terrorists” and one member of the authorities were killed in the raid, it added.

Rami Abdulrahman of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the clashes began when a group of what he characterised as armed defectors attacked a house in the wealthy Villas area of Mezzeh with a rocket-propelled grenade. Mr Abdulrahman said that fighting then spread to other parts of Mezzeh. At least two government forces and four opponents were killed, he said.

If the rebels did initiate the clashes, it is not clear what their targets would have been. One activist from Mezzeh said that a security building and the homes of several VIP politicians were nearby. “It is an upper middle-class area,” said the activist. “It’s very surprising – no one could think there were clashes in this area.”

Security in central Damascus and Aleppo – Syria’s twin economic and political hubs – is tightly controlled. Armed opposition activity in these areas is rare, though not unheard of. In November, an attack on offices of the ruling Ba’ath party in Damascus was reported, and last month state media said a general was assassinated in broad daylight outside his Damascus home.

Monday’s attack comes after a weekend of lethal car bombs in Damascus and Aleppo, which the government blamed on “terrorists” and the opposition attributed to the regime.

The recent violence contradicts the impression of a restoration of “order” given by the government after it took control of areas previously held by the opposition in the central city of Homs and the north-western city of Idlib.

Some analysts suggest that while the regime has the military resources to impose control in particular places, it is struggling to crush decisively a lightly armed but resilient insurgency.

Syria had imported nearly six times as many arms between 2007 and 2011 as in the previous five-year period, a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said on Monday

Russia on Monday urged the regime to agree to daily ceasefires to allow humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas, backing an initiative from the International Committee of the Red Cross to treat the wounded in the violence-torn country.

Moscow is one of the few outside governments with any influence over Damascus. Although it has vetoed two western-backed UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, it is coming under increasing pressure to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation there.

Diplomats told Reuters news agency on Monday that France was planning to submit a new draft statement to the UN Security Council urging support for UN-Arab envoy Kofi Annan’s efforts to resolve the crisis and an end to violence against protesters.

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