BEIRUT - Security forces fired mortars into a district on the outskirts of Damascus on Thursday, the first time an area of the Syrian capital has been shelled since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began 16 months ago.

Activists in the Kfar Souseh neighbourhood of Damascus said Assad's forces were firing mortar rounds into orchards on the outskirts of the city, apparently trying to flush out rebels taking cover there.

The al-Lawan and Basateen districts of Kfar Souseh are a semi-residential area of olive and fruit groves lying astride a major interchange on the capital's Hafez al-Assad southern bypass highway.

Activists said that tanks had moved in and were firing from the big Hadi Mosque to the east of the fields, and from the al-Mazzeh military airport immediately to the west.

"I woke up this morning and saw helicopters flying over the area. Then I started hearing the mortars. There were about six or seven of them in the past half hour. And now I just heard another one hit. We can see fire and smoke coming from one of the fields nearby," said anti-government activist Hazem al-Aqad.

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"People are terrified, families are getting in their cars and rushing as fast as they can to other areas. About 200 people in my area have left so far," he told Reuters on Skype.

A Damascus activist named Lina said the shelling had begun at 9:45 a.m. "This is the first time they have shelled Kfar Souseh, (though) they tried to break into it before," she said.

A third activist source said: "The FSA (rebel Free Syrian Army) are going in and out of the Basateen area in Kfar Souseh. The army has suffered some heavy losses."

"This is a farm area, people have olive trees. It's a poor area, there have been a lot of protests," he added.

"They believe the rebels are hiding in the fields so it seems they've started to launch an attack. This is the first time we've ever had shelling in an area within the capital."

He said there was also fighting in New Artouz, which is about 15 km outside the capital. "It was very heavy. From 2 till 4 in the morning we were up listening to it."

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

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