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Activists: Syrian rebels clash with elite troops

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria's elite Republican Guard forces clashed with rebels just outside Damascus on Tuesday in some of the most intense fighting involving the special forces guarding the capital since an uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began last year, activists said.

The clashes erupted near Republican Guard housing compounds and bases in the suburbs of Qudsaya and Hammah, about 5 miles from central Damascus, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said at least six people were killed in the fighting.

The Republican Guard, which is commanded by Assad's younger brother Maher, is tasked with protecting the capital, the seat of the regime's power.

The fighting suggested growing boldness by rebels as the more than 15-month effort to oust Assad turns increasingly militarized.

Clashes erupt regularly in the suburbs between troops and rebels, but Assad's forces have firm control of Damascus and it is very rare for fighting to take place near the Republican Guard bases.

Assad has faced an embarrassing wave of defections in recent days, including several senior officers and soldiers who fled to neighboring Turkey. Although high-level defections appear to be increasing, Assad's inner circle has remained largely intact.

State-run news agency SANA confirmed clashes in the area, claiming that dozens of gunmen attacked civilians and troops in Hammah. SANA said troops fought the attackers, including foreign fighters, killing dozens of them and detaining others.

Troops confiscated automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and large amounts of ammunition, according to SANA.