BEIRUT – Bullets and shrapnel shells smashed into homes in the Syrian capital of Damascus overnight as troops battled rebels in the streets, a show of boldness for rebels taking their fight against President Bashar Assad to the center of his power.
For nearly 12 hours of fighting that lasted into early Saturday, rebels armed mainly with assault rifles fought Syrian forces in the heaviest fighting in the Assad stronghold since the 15-month uprising began. U.N. observers said rebels fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the local power plant, damaging parts of it and reducing six buses to charred shells, according to video observers took of the scene.
Syrian forces showed the regime’s willingness to unleash such firepower in the capital: At least three tank shells slammed into residential areas in the central Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, an activist said. Intense exchanges of assault-rifle fire marked the clash, according to residents and amateur video posted online.
At least 52 civilians were killed around the country outside Damascus on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group. Among them were 20, including nine women and children, who died in heavy, pre-dawn shelling in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. Six children were among 10 killed by a shell that exploded in a house they took cover in during fierce fighting in the coastal region of Latakia, the group said.
The group’s figures could not be independently confirmed.
The Damascus violence was a dramatic shift; the capital has been relatively quiet compared with other Syrian cities throughout the uprising. Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, the country’s largest, are under the firm grip of security forces.
The rebels’ brazenness in the Damascus districts underscored deep-seated Sunni anger against the regime, with residents risking their safety – and potentially their lives – to shelter the fighters. Residents burned tires to block the advance of Syrian troops, sending plumes of smoke into the air, video showed.
Urban Sunni Syrians had once mostly stayed at arm’s length from their primarily rural compatriots leading the uprising, fearing the instability that their leaderless, chaotic movement would bring.
But it appears a series of massacres of mainly Sunni peasants over the past few weeks has tipped some of their urban brethren in favor of the uprising.
The most recent mass killing was on Wednesday in central Syria, where activists say up to 78 people were hacked, burned and stabbed in the farming village of Mazraat al-Qubair. The opposition and regime have traded blame over the slayings.