Activists: Clashes break out near Syrian capital

Armed Syrian men, members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, gather in a mountainous area of the restive Idlib province in northwestern Syria March 13, 2012. AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 1:16 p.m. ET

(AP) BEIRUT - Syrian troops clashed with army defectors in several areas near the capital Damascus in the first significant battles there since President Bashar Assad's forces regained control of the suburbs weeks ago, activists said Friday.

The fighting came just hours before tens of thousands of people held protests in many Syrian towns and cities after Friday prayers, the activists said. The protests spread from the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, to the central regions of Hama and Homs, southern province of Daraa.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees activist groups said security forces opened fire at several demonstrations killing one person in the northeastern city of Hassaka and wounding several people in Aleppo.

An amateur video posted online showed hundreds of people marching in the northern city of Raqqa shortly before they came under fire forcing them to run for safety. Demonstrations then could be seen carrying away at least two wounded people.

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Syria's Foreign Ministry said in a letter sent to the heads of the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council Friday that Damascus will continue its crackdown and at the same time will cooperate with Kofi Annan, the envoy charged with trying to help end the violence in Syria.

The statement came hours after Syria's strong ally Russia said it has encouraged the Syrian government to cooperate with Annan and urged the West to do the same with the Syrian rebels.

Also Friday, Turkey urged its citizens in Syria to return home, saying some consular services will be halted in Damascus next week. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that developments in Syria have brought about serious security risks for Turkish citizens and they are "strongly urged to come home."

The statement said the Turkish embassy in Damascus will remain open. On Thursday, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain had said they will close their embassies in Syria, months after they withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.

The clashes in Damascus suburbs highlight the shifting nature of the Syrian conflict, with rebel fighters igniting new fronts soon after the regime turns its attention elsewhere.

The Observatory said the clash in Tal, on the outskirts of the capital, lasted until the early hours of Friday. The Observatory and the LCC said there were also clashes in other areas near Damascus, including Dumair and Qatana on Thursday night.

Both groups also reported clashes between troops and army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour that borders Iraq. They said one person was killed.

They also said that troops shelled the rebel-held central town of Rastan, just north of Homs, killing one person.

Syria's state-run news agency SANA said troops clashed with gunmen in the village of Kfar Nobol and Hazazin in the northern region of Jabal al-Zawiya where army defectors have had a presence since last summer.

In early February, Assad's troops launched a major military campaign during which regime forces put the suburbs surrounding the capital under government control. The attack on the Damascus countryside was followed by a regime offensive to expel rebel forces from the Baba Amr district of Homs and Idlib in northern Syria.

Assad's year-old crackdown on the uprising has killed more than 8,000 people, the U.N. says.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso said there were casualties in the Damascus suburbs clashes but he didn't have the exact figures.

"Every time the regime controls a specific area we witness clashes in new regions," Osso said. "It seems that this is the strategy of the Free Syrian Army."

The Foreign Ministry said in its statement carried by state-run news agency, SANA, that the Syrian government "is going ahead with its duty to protect its citizens, disarm terrorists and punish them."

The government is also going ahead in seeking "a political solution for the crisis Syria is passing through in coordination with special envoy Kofi Annan." The statement referred to last year's abolishing of a decades-old state of emergency law, allowing the formation of political parties and drafting a new constitution.

Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general who is the joint U.N. and Arab League special envoy, met twice with Assad last weekend and made proposals to end the bloodshed. Annan, who made no progress toward a solution, is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council later Friday about his efforts to end the crisis.

The Syrian uprising began in March last year with mostly peaceful protests in a number of the country's impoverished provinces. As security forces violently suppressed the protests, the uprising escalated into an armed insurrection.

On Thursday, tanks and snipers besieged opposition areas, including the southern city of Daraa where the uprising began last March, touched off by the arrest of a group of youths who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.

Western and Arab countries have struggled to stop the bloodshed by calling on Assad to step down and imposing sanctions. Many in the opposition say only military aid can stop the killing and bring Assad down, but no countries are openly arming the opposition.

France on Thursday rejected weapons requests by the Syrian rebel forces, saying that arming the Syrian opposition could lead to catastrophic civil war.

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