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'Massive raid' reported in heart of Damascus

fighting also raged in the second city of AleppoSyrian forces rounded up residents in a massive raid in the central district of Damascus and bombarded rebel strongholds around the capital, as fighting also raged in the second city of Aleppo, activists have said.

Security forces reportedly arrested at least 21 people as they raided houses and shops in the centre of Damascus on Monday. Activists said the raid was the biggest operation of its kind in the city since the launch of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in March last year.
The Syrian Revolution General Council, a network of activists on the ground, said that during the raids armed forces had broken down the doors of shops that had closed in a show of defiance against the regime.

Rami Abdel Rahman of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said:  "This is not the first time there have been raids in central Damascus, but this is the first time something like this has happened on such a large scale."

Security forces also swept into a graveyard "under the pretext of searching for weapons", he said.

Aleppo battle

On the outskirts of Damascus, shells slammed into rebel strongholds from before dawn on Monday. Activists said more than 45 people including 36 civilians had been killed in the past 48 hours in the area.

Fighting also raged in the city of Aleppo, a city seen as potential turning point in the conflict as rebels seek to establish a strategic foothold in the north.

Clashes were reported in the southwestern district of Salaheddin, which rebels fled last week but has seen continued clashes.

Syrian troops were advancing on the southwestern rebel stronghold of Sukari, security sources said.

Activists on Sunday said "communications of all forms" were cut in most of Aleppo city and its suburbs.

In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, opposition rebels reportedly shot down a government warplane on Monday, according to activists.

"The rebels shot down the plane and captured its pilot," the Local Co-ordination Committees activist network said.

The state news channel Syria TV, however, reported that the plane crashed due to technical problems during a "regular training mission" and a search party was under way.

State news agency SANA said the pilot had ejected from the plane before it crashed.

Syria visit

Elsewhere, the opposition Syrian National Council and activist groups on Sunday charged that pro-government militia had summarily executed 10 civilians during a round-up in the Shamas neighbourhood of Homs.

Pro-regime daily Al-Watan said military forces had "cleared the Shamas neighbourhood in Homs of terrorists" in an operation that lasted 48 hours, adding that "more than 40 insurgents were killed" while 70 others arrested.

On Monday, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos announced that she is to visit Syria and Lebanon amid growing concern for the "deteriorating humanitarian situation".

The visit, planned from August 14 to 16, "aims to draw attention to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria and the impact of the conflict on people either remaining in Syria and who have fled to other countries, including Lebanon", the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs said in a statement.

While in Syria, Amos is expected to discuss ways of "urgently scaling-up relief efforts and reducing the suffering of civilians caught up in the fighting with the Syrian authorities, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other humanitarian partners".

The foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and other Arab leaders met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Sunday ahead of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Mecca on Tuesday.

An unnamed diplomat there told the Reuters news agency that Syria "most likely" be suspended from the OIC, a move Iran opposes.

"By suspending the membership, this does not mean you are moving towards resolving an issue. By this, you are erasing the issue," said Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters in Jeddah, seat of the 57-strong OIC of which allies Iran and Syria are members.

"Every country, especially OIC countries must join hands to resolve this issue in such a way that will help the peace security and stability in the region," he added on the eve of an OIC summit in Saudi Arabia.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has arrived in Saudi Arabia and will attend the summit.

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