BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian government forces battled rebels on the fringes of Damascus on Sunday, after the rebels attacked from a residential district towards a main square that is a gateway to the heart of the Old City, rebels and a monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army and allied forces clashed with rebels in the Jobar district of the heavily fortified capital, an area that lies nearly two km north east of the old city walls.
A rebel commander said the assault on the army's last line of defense of the city's residential areas was aimed at relieving pressure on rebels who have lost ground in Qaboun and Barza, north of Jobar. The assault by a coalition of rebels included two suicide bombings launched by Islamist brigades, he added.
"This is to relieve the pressure on rebels with the regime not stopping its bombardment and artillery shelling," Abu Abdo, a commander from Failaq al Rahman said via internet messaging, adding that the rebels had seized several buildings that overlooked the Abbasiyin square, in the heart of the city.
Sounds of shelling and gunfire could be heard in the center of Damascus since the morning, a witness said.
Syrian state television said the army was fighting to repel an attack by militants in Jobar and bombarding them with artillery.
Heavy explosions rang out in the background as state TV broadcast live from Abbasiyin square, where the once teeming area seemed to be deserted of traffic and pedestrians.
Warplanes pounded the Jobar area on Sunday, while rebel shells hit several nearby districts in Damascus, including Bab Touma, Rukn al-Din and the Abbasiyin area, the monitor said
Rebels said the army had advanced in the last two days after weeks of bombardment and aerial strikes aimed at regaining control of strategic areas inside the capital a few kms away from President Bashar al Assad's seat of power.
The army had advanced towards a road between Qaboun and Barza whose capture severed the links between the two besieged rebel districts where tens of thousands of people live.
"Taking this road would isolate Barza and Qaboun completely and with a security belt around it," said Abu Abdullah, another fighter with Failaq al Rahman rebel group.
The army and its militias have been targeting the besieged Eastern Ghouta, the biggest remaining rebel bastion around the capital, for months, making incremental gains. It has undertaken a relentless bombing campaign of residential areas to force rebels to surrender and agree to deals that push them out of these areas.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Suleiman al Khalidi in Amman, additional reporting by Kinda Makieh; editing by Jason Neely and Elaine Hardcastle)