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Syria: Rebels forced out of eastern Damascus suburbs

Fear in Damascus spreads as battles between Syria's security forces and rebels inch closer to the capital.

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A huge poster of President Bashar al-Assad hangs over government supporters during a pro-regime rally in Damascus on Jan. 26, 2012. Syrian rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army, were pushed back away from the capital over the weekend. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian army has retaken several districts east of Syria's capital Damascus following three days of battles with rebel groups over the weekend. In some of the fiercest fighting in months, dozens of residents were killed as government forces pushed the so-called Free Syrian Army back into hiding.

The Free Syrian Army had taken effective control of several towns east of Damascus the week before, setting up checkpoints and operating in plain sight.

But on Saturday thousands of Syrian army troops backed by up to 50 tanks entered the areas of Douma, Saqba, Hamourieh and Kafr Batna in the Ghota region, which is about six miles east of the city center. Activists later said that the Free Syrian Army ceased engaging the regular forces for "tactical" reasons. At least 15 people were killed in the fighting Sunday in Saqba and Kafr Batna. According to activists, security forces conducted house-to-house raids and arrests in those towns.

State crackdowns in numerous other areas around the capital have been reported over the past few days. Several foreign journalists attempted entering Douma, a longstanding center of protest northeast of the capital, on Saturday but were turned back by soldiers at army checkpoints. As in other eastern suburbs of Damascus, electricity and communications were cut off over the weekend though by Sunday night regime forces appeared to have regained full control of the town.

More from GlobalPost: Meet the Free Syrian Army

Three observers from the Arab League mission attempted to visit Rankous on Saturday, a restive town 20 miles north of Damascus but were warned by military officers there not to enter for their own safety. Later the same day the Syrian army shelled Rankous, a Sunni town of 23,000 inhabitants, to root out the fighters. At least 33 people have been killed there in the last week, activists said.

A cafe manager who asked not to be identified said his neighborhood in eastern Damascus continues to be off limits even to residents.

"My mother is staying at one house, my father somewhere else and I'm sleeping at my friend's house because we cannot go home. The army is there," he said.

From Meliha in eastern Damascus, he, like many others in the capital, blames the opposition fighters for bringing unrest to their homes.

"Life was not easy before but look how Syria is now. We just want peace," he said.

Security officers manning checkpoints in Meliha told residents they could leave the area but could not return. "They [the protesters] shout 'Allah u Akhbar' but their god is not my god even though we are the same religion," he added.

While tension inside the capital is palpable, no new clashes were visible Monday. The number of security officers, soldiers and military vehicles on the streets, however, has increased since several bombings struck Damascus several weeks ago. Shortages of cooking gas and heating fuel have also plagued life in the capital for several months.

More from GlobalPost: Syria: How it all began

Electricity outages and general fear on Sunday evening left the streets of the capital emptied. A correspondent for GlobalPost visited the streets around the presidential palace in the Malki district of Damascus where an increased security presence was notable, though no checkpoints had been established. Routes into Damascus remain open and checkpoints have not been erected inside the city, though anti-blast walls have been positioned around dozens of security and military facilities.

Also on Sunday, reports surfaced of an attack on the air force security headquarters at Tahrir Square, which close to the popular Bab Touma district. Locals reported hearing explosions to the east of the district. But the area otherwise remained quiet.

Almost 200 people have been killed around the country over the past three days, according to opposition groups. State media, meanwhile, has reported that dozens of soldiers and "law-enforcement forces" have died in clashes.

The regime continues to state it is fighting armed gangs backed by foreign interests and the loss of territory so close to the capital would represent its greatest security failure to date.

"There is no solution," said a shopkeeper in Baramkeh, Damascus. "We can hear the sound of explosions from the city center every day. It is getting louder and louder."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/120130/syria-damascus-free-syria-army-assad-protests