BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces encircled rebel fighters in Damascus on Monday, waging a second day of fighting that residents described as the worst to hit the capital since the 17-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began.
Armoured vehicles rolled into the southern district of Midan and were reinforced by security forces surrounding the area in the late afternoon. Residents said they saw snipers deployed on rooftops.
“There are troops everywhere, I can hear ambulances,” said a resident near Midan. “It feels like a war in Damascus.”
The spread of fighting in the capital comes as United Nations envoy Kofi Annan starts a two-day visit to Moscow to try to promote a peace plan for Syria. He will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has resisted Western calls to increase pressure on Assad.
A video uploaded by opposition activists aired on al-Jazeera network showed men in jeans hiding behind sandbagged Damascus alleyways, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machineguns. Fighting raged on and off in Midan and Tadamon on Monday after unprecedented battles on Sunday.
A fighter told Reuters rebels could not retreat after a few hours of fighting, as they had in previous incursions into the capital, because they were surrounded by security forces and checkpoints.
“They want to leave. If they were able to leave they would have left,” he said. “The whole area is surrounded.”
The government has said little about the unrest in the capital. State television reported on Monday that security forces were chasing “terrorist groups” that had fled to some neighbourhoods in Damascus.
Anti-government activists said clashes so close to the seat of government showed that rebels were chipping away at state power in a capital once seen as Assad’s impenetrable stronghold.
“When you turn your guns against the heart of Damascus, on Midan, you have lost the city. The rebels in the street have the support of families across Damascus,” said Damascus-based activist Imad Moaz.
Activist accounts are hard to verify because the government restricts access to international media.
“ELEMENTS OF BLACKMAIL”
The West wants Moscow to drop its support for Assad, which has seen Russia veto action against him at the U.N. Security Council. But before talks with Annan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signalled no change in Moscow’s position.
Lavrov said Western efforts to pass a Security Council resolution - which would extend a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria and also include a threat of sanctions - contained “elements of blackmail”. He called for support of Moscow’s rival text instead, which does not call for sanctions.
“If our partners decide to block our resolution no matter what, then the U.N. mission will not have a mandate and will have to leave Syria. That would be a pity,” he said.
The small, unarmed monitoring mission is the only international military presence in Syria. It was brought in as part of a peace plan backed by Annan, but suspended due to rising violence in Syria, where activists say more than 17,000 people have died.
Activists reported at least seven people killed in the fighting in Damascus on Monday, but said casualties were hard to determine due to difficulty of movement in violence-hit areas.
Video released by activists showed armoured vehicles and troops in combat gear deployed on the highway from Damascus to Amman. Protesters had blocked the entrance to the highway with burning tyres to ease pressure on Midan fighters.
One activist, who asked not to be identified, said residents were braced for more trouble in the capital after the army crushed pockets of revolt in suburbs outside Damascus.
“There were thousands of fighters in some of those suburbs. Some of them were killed but a lot of them fled and they’ve been heading to the capital itself,” the activist said.
Pressure on Assad has been growing both from outside the government and within. Morocco asked Syria’s ambassador to leave, and Damascus immediately retaliated by declaring Morocco’s ambassador persona non grata.
The move comes days after the Syrian ambassador to Iraq defected to the opposition, and a week after top general and Assad insider Manaf Tlas fled Syria.
What began as a protest movement inspired by demonstrations in other Arab countries has become an armed insurgency fighting back against Assad’s crackdown. The International Committee for the Red Cross now classifies the conflict as a civil war.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny; Editing by Peter Graff