AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian troops backed by armored vehicles entered the district of Midan in central Damascus on Monday to drive out rebels who have secured a foothold at a striking distance from major state installations, neighborhood activists said.
In the biggest armored deployment in Damascus in the 17-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, infantry fighting vehicles deployed along main thoroughfares of Midan, a Sunni Muslim neighborhood, as the insurgents withdrew to alleyways and sporadic fighting was reported, they said.
"The rebels are trying to hold the army off in al-Zahra al-Jadeeda (neighborhood). There is fighting there and the sound of bombardment and rocket-propelled grenades is echoing from there," Radeef, an opposition activist, said by phone from Midan. "Armored vehicles are now deployed in the rest of Midan and army snipers have taken positions on rooftops."
Another activist said residents of the large neighborhood were staying indoors and the only movement seen was that of the army and its armor and rebels in the alleyways of the old district, which has been rebuilt since it was shelled during a rebellion against French occupation in the 1920s.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition sources said residents of Nahr Aisheh, a poor Sunni neighborhood south of Midan, had blocked the main Damascus-Amman highway with rocks and burning tires to try and relieve pressure on Midan.
Syria's conflict has become increasingly sectarian in nature, with the rebels mainly from the Sunni majority pitted against government forces led by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)