BEIRUT – Syrian government forces attacked rebels with helicopter gunships in the heart of Damascus on Tuesday, escalating a campaign to crush their opponents as clashes spread to new areas, illustrating the rebels growing reach.
Cracks of gunfire and explosions echoed inside the capital for a third day, including a firefight near the countrys parliament, in an unprecedented challenge to government rule in President Bashar Assads seat of power.
Neighboring Iraq called on its citizens living in Syria to return home, as the fighting overshadowed another round of diplomatic maneuvering to end the civil war, with special envoy Kofi Annan in Moscow in an attempt to rescue his faltering peace plan.
Plumes of gray smoke billowed over the Damascus skyline and helicopter gunships strafed the area, activists said – a sign the regime is growing desperate to push the rebels away from the heavily guarded capital.
Terrified families fled the city or said they were prepared to leave at a moments notice. Residents said they were packing getaway bags in case they had to run for their lives.
My bag has my familys passports, our university degrees, some cash and medicine, a 57-year-old father of two told The Associated Press, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. It is very hard to imagine leaving your home and everything you worked to get, but its a matter of life and death.
The streets are completely empty, the shops are closed. People are terrified of whats next, said Omar Qabouni, an activist in Qaboun. He said eight people were killed Tuesday in mortar and tank shelling by government forces. He estimated about 300 rebels were taking part in the fighting.
Activists and residents said the fighting also reached new areas Tuesday, with brief firefights erupting in downtown Damascus, about 400 yards from the Syrian parliament.
The clashes broke up quickly as the rebels fled but were a significant indicator of the rapidly spreading violence and the deep reach of the rebels as they become more confident and better armed.
Troops threw up multiple checkpoints and were searching cars in an effort to seal the capital off from rebellious areas in the suburbs.
I can hear cracks of gunfire and some explosions from the direction of Midan, Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said via Skype. Black smoke is billowing from the area.
Al-Shami said residents of hard-hit areas were fleeing to safer neighborhoods where they were staying in schools and mosques. He said many of the wounded were being treated at secret hospitals for fear they might be detained if taken to official ones.
Although the uprising began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests, a government crackdown prompted many in the opposition to take up arms.
Now, the conflict is a full-blown civil war, and activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed. There are fears the violence and chaos could spread across the region.
As the violence in Syria escalates, the number of Syrians fleeing the bloodshed has swelled to 112,000, the U.N said.