BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels fired grenades at tanks and troops while regime armor shelled Damascus neighborhoods on Monday, sending terrified families fleeing the most sustained and widespread fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising 16 months ago.
A ring of fierce clashes nearly encircled the heavily guarded capital as rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad pushed the civil war that has been building in Syria's impoverished provinces closer to the seat of power.
While the clashes were focused in a string of neighborhoods in the city's southwest, for many of its 4 million people the violence brought scarily close to home the strife that has deeply scarred other Syrian cities.
In high-end downtown cafes frequented by the business and government elite tightly bound to the Assad regime, customers watched as black smoke billowed on the horizon and the boom of government shells reverberated in the distance.
"Without a doubt, this is all anyone is talking about today," a Damascus activist who gave his name as Noor Bitar said via Skype. "The sounds of war are clear throughout the city. They are bouncing off the buildings."
Syria's violence has grown increasingly bloody and chaotic in recent months as the uprising has morphed from a peaceful protest movement seeking political change into an armed insurgency seeking to topple the regime by force.
Anti-regime activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed, and the government says it has lost more than 4,000 security officers. It does not provide numbers of civilian dead.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the violence, and world powers remain deeply divided over who is responsible and how to stop it. The U.S. and many Western nations have called on Assad to leave power, while Russia, China and Iran have stood by the regime.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of using blackmail to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow the use of force in Syria.
Lavrov objected to the text of a Western-backed resolution that calls for sanctions and invokes Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can be enforceable militarily.
He said Russia had been told that if it opposed the resolution, Western nations would not extend the mandate of a U.N. mission sent to Syria to monitor a cease-fire.
"We consider it to be an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach," Lavrov said.
International envoy Kofi Annan, who has made little progress in brokering a political solution in Syria, met Russian leaders in Moscow on Monday. The meeting — the latest in Annan's efforts to save his faltering peace plan — comes a day after the conflict crossed an important symbolic threshold, with the international Red Cross formally declaring it a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.
Monday's fighting suggested that deep cracks were appearing in the tightly controlled facade of calm that has insulated Damascus from violence throughout the uprising.
Damascus — and Syria's largest city, Aleppo — are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad's regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls.
But for months, rebels have been gaining strength in poorer towns and cities in the Damascus countryside. Some activists suggested Monday that recent government crackdowns in those areas had pushed rebels into the city, where they were determined to strike at the heart of the regime.
"It seems there is a new strategy to bring the fighting into the center of the capital," said activist Mustafa Osso. "The capital used to be safe. This will trouble the regime."
Another activist, who gave only his first name, Moaz, said he had never seen such violent fighting in his neighborhood of Tadamon, a poor, densely populated area south of downtown.
He said the army had parked armored vehicles at the neighborhood's entrances and posted tanks on its north and south edges.
Some two-thirds of the neighborhood's residents have fled, while those who remain are scared government snipers will target them if they leave now, he said.
But so far, the rebels have kept the army out, destroying three tanks and one armored car with rocket-propelled grenades, said Moaz, declining to give his full name for fear of retribution. Others spoke on condition anonymity.
Amateur videos posted online Monday gave glimpses of the fighting. In one, a dozen fighters crouched Sunday behind sandbags, firing at a tank down a rubble-strewn street with a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenades.
Another video showed a burnt station wagon with at least three charred bodies inside that an off-camera narrator said were government troops.
Yet another video showed dozens of protesters who had blocked traffic on the main highway entering the city from the south with burning tires, bricks and pieces of metal fencing. Hundreds of cars were backed up in both directions.
A video apparently shot later in the day showed army vehicles and troops blocking the entrances to an adjacent neighborhood.
The fiercest fighting was in the southwest neighborhoods of Mezzeh, Kfar Souseh, Midan, Tadamon, Nahr Aisha and al-Zahira, while activists also reported clashes in the western suburbs and in the northern neighborhood of Barzeh.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12 people were killed in and around Damascus, among some 90 people killed nationwide. About a third of the dead were government troops, it said.
Activist claims and videos could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from working in the country.
The government said little about the clashes, but the state news agency said the army was hunting an "armed terrorist group" in one of the neighborhoods. The regime blames the uprising on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to weaken the country.
Streets were largely deserted in neighborhoods near the fighting. Many families have fled or are still trying to get out, and fear grips those who remain.
"It is a war here, a war," said a 28-year-old mother of two reached by phone in the Midan neighborhood. She said she didn't know if there were rebels on her street because she was scared that looking out the window would draw fire. She said her 5-year-old son had not stopped screaming since the fighting started Sunday.
"Assad will only go after he kills all of us," said the woman, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals from Syrian security.
The Syrian regime has grown increasingly isolated throughout the crisis, with a number of Arab and Western nations withdrawing their ambassadors to protest the crackdown.
On Monday, Morocco asked the Syrian ambassador to leave the country. Within hours, Syria's state-run TV said the Foreign Ministry had declared Morocco's ambassador to Syria persona non grata.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz contributed reporting from Moscow.