AMMAN - Syrian forces on Wednesday fired artillery and rocket barrages at the northern Damascus suburb of al-Tel in an attempt to seize the town from rebels, causing mass panic and forcing hundreds of families to flee the area, residents and opposition activists said.

The 216th mechanized battalion headquartered near Tel started bombarding the town of about 100,000 people at 3:15 a.m. (0015 GMT) at the rate of one projectile every minute, and initial reports indicated that residential apartment blocks were being hit, they said.

Opposition sources said that rebels destroyed an army roadblock that had cut off the Tel-Damascus road, and that most people were fleeing north into the nearby Qalamoun Mountains.

"Military helicopters are flying now over the town. People were awaken by the sound of explosions and are running away," Rafe Alam, one of the activists, said by phone from a hill overlooking Tel.

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"Electricity and telephones have been cut off. Tel had been considered a safe haven and thousands of families from Homs and Damascus suburbs like Douma took refuge over the past few months in Tel," said Alam, who is using a pseudonym because he fears for his safety.

Tel, located eight kilometers north of Damascus, is a conservative Sunni Muslim town that relies on remittances from expatriates in Saudi Arabia, who work there mostly as skilled laborers in the construction sector.

The town fell into rebel hands last week along with several districts in the capital and on its outskirts after a bomb killed four of  Syrian President Bashar Assad's top lieutenants.

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