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Syrian fighting continues ahead of truce

Fighting erupts near Damascus ahead of holiday ceasefire deadline killing five people.

A small fire smolders (L) at the site of an attack on the pro-government Al-Ikhbariya satellite television channel's offices outside Damascus, which killed three staff on June 27, 2012. Picture: AFP

AMMAN - President Bashar al-Assad's forces fired heavy tank and rocket barrages at a Damascus suburb on Thursday, killing five people, opposition activists said, a day before a UN-brokered ceasefire is due to come into force.

The fighting in Harasta, just northeast of Damascus, erupted after rebels overran two army roadblocks on the edge of the large town, which is on the main highway linking the capital to the country's north, they said.

"Harasta is being pummelled by tanks and rocket launchers deployed in the highway. The rebels are putting up a fight and it does not seem the army will be able to enter the town this time," Mohammad, a Damascus resident, said by phone.

He was referring to the last armoured incursion by loyalist forces into Harasta a month ago, which opposition campaigners said had killed 70 people.

Harasta is one of a series of large Sunni Muslim suburbs ringing the Syrian capital that have been at the forefront of the 19-month-old rebellion against Assad.

He belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated Syrian politics since the 1960s.

The Harasta Media Office opposition activists' group described the town as a "disaster zone" following the shelling.

"An (army) roadblock had been set up next to the main bakery. There is no water, no food, no medicine and prolonged power cuts," it said in a statement.

Other residents of Damascus said the sound of shelling targeting Harasta and the nearby neighbourhood of Zamalka could be heard from the centre of the capital.

On Wednesday, an Arab League mediator for the Syrian conflict told the UN Security Council that Assad has accepted a ceasefire for the Muslim 'Eid' holiday starting on Friday.

An announcement by the Syrian authorities was expected later. But Moaz al-Shami, an opposition activist in Damascus said "no one is taking the ceasefire seriously".

"How can there be a ceasefire with tanks roaming the streets, roadblocks every few hundred metres and the army having no qualms about hitting civilian neighbourhoods with heavy artillery? This is a regime that has lost all credibility."

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