Fierce fighting in Damascus
Syrian troops backed by armoured vehicles today entered the district of Midan in central Damascus to drive out rebels who have secured a foothold at a striking distance from major state installations, neighbourhood activists said.
In the biggest armoured deployment in Damascus in the 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, infantry fighting vehicles took positions along the main thoroughfares of Midan, a strategic Sunni Muslim neighbourhood, as rebels withdrew to alleyways and sporadic fighting was reported, they said.
"The rebels are trying to hold the army off in al-Zahra al-Jadeeda (neighbourhood). There is fighting there and the sound of bombardment and rocket-propelled grenades is echoing from there," Radeef, an opposition activist, said by phone from Midan.
"Armoured vehicles are now deployed in the rest of Midan and army snipers have taken positions on rooftops."
Another activist said residents of the large neighbourhood were staying indoors and the only movement seen was that of the army and its armour and rebels in the alleyways of the old district, which has been rebuilt since it was shelled during a rebellion against French occupation in the 1920s.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other opposition sources said residents of Nahr Aisheh, a poor Sunni neighbourhood south of Midan, had blocked the main Damascus-Amman highway with rocks and burning tyres to try and relieve pressure on Midan.
Opposition fighters had battled Syrian government forces in Damascus into the early hours of today in what residents described as the fiercest fighting yet inside the capital.
Activists said the fighting spread from the south of the city to a second area as night fell. At least five people were killed and dozens wounded, locals said.
Another activist said violence had also broken out in the city's southern district of Tadamon this morning.
The spread of fighting came as UN peace mediator Kofi Annan was due to fly to Moscow for a two-day visit in which he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin who has resisted Western calls to increase pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
However Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov signalled no change in Russia's position on the conflict today before talks with Mr Annan.
Mr Lavrov reiterated Moscow's opposition to a resolution being discussed by the UN Security Council on extending a monitoring mission in Syria which includes a threat of sanctions. He told a news conference that such threats contained "elements of blackmail".
Meanwhile, numerous Damascus residents contacted by Reuters said they could hear loud explosions, persistent gunfire and sirens wailing overnight, and described the fighting as the worst so far of the 17-month uprising against Assad.