Syria’s military deployed armoured vehicles near central Damascus on Monday as troops battled rebels around the capital in what activists said could be a turning point in the 16-month uprising.
Russia meanwhile slammed as “blackmail” Western pressure to push for a UN Security Council resolution against Syria’s regime and said it would be “unrealistic” for its ally President Bashar al-Assad to quit.
With battles raging between the army and rebels around Damascus — the nerve centre of the regime — for a second straight day, troops deployed armoured vehicles near the historic neighbourhood of Al-Midan.
“This is the first time that armoured and military transport vehicles are deployed in Al-Midan,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP in Beirut.
“When there is fighting in the capital for several hours, even days, and troops are unable to control the situation, that proves the regime’s weakness,” said the director of the Britain-based monitoring group.
An activist on the ground, identifying himself as Abu Musab, said the army was trying to overrun Al-Midan and described the fighting as a “turning point” in the revolt against Assad’s autocratic regime.
Activists said the army and Free Syrian Army rebels had also been locked in fierce clashes since Sunday in the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Tadamon, Kfar Sousa in the west and Jobar in the east.
They said the clashes were the worst in the capital since the start of the uprising in March 2011.
The authorities vowed on Monday they would not surrender the capital. “You will never get Damascus,” read the headline in Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime.
“Security forces, backed by the army, have for the past 48 hours been attacking the terrorist groups as they try to pull back to districts on the outskirts,” the paper said.
A resident of nearby Jaramana said the area was like a “war zone.”
Activists said residents were fleeing Tadamon, with many seeking shelter in the nearby Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, as the opposition Syrian National Council accused the regime of transforming Damascus into “battlefields.”
Elsewhere, rebel-held districts of the central city of Homs, which has been under siege for months, were bombarded on Monday, according to the Observatory, which reported at least four rebels and a civilian killed across the country.
It also reported the arrest of a well-known goalkeeper, Mustafa Shakush, in Latakia, northwest Syria, “for his support of the revolt.”
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross sounded a note of alarm, saying Syria is in a state of all-out civil war and that all sides must respect humanitarian law or risk facing war crimes prosecutions.
“Each time there is fighting we can see conditions that can be defined as a non-international armed conflict,” ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb told AFP, adding “international humanitarian law applies” in such circumstances.
The latest violence comes as diplomatic pressure builds ahead of a key Security Council vote on Friday to decide if the 300-strong UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) will be renewed.
The unarmed observers are tasked with overseeing the implementation of a six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan which has been flouted daily since mid-April when it went into effect.
Speaking ahead of talks with Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of trying to “blackmail” Moscow to get its backing for possible sanctions against Syria.
“To our great regret, we are witnessing elements of blackmail,” said Lavrov, adding it was “unrealistic” for Moscow to back calls for Assad to step down as the population supports him.
“It is simply unrealistic… he will not leave power. And this is not because we are protecting him but because there is a very significant part of the Syrian population behind him.”
Annan is on his way to Moscow for talks with Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin while UN chief Ban Ki-moon is due in Beijing on Tuesday also for a mission to get support for tougher action on Syria.
Moscow and Beijing have twice blocked resolutions against Syria at the Security Council which is divided over Western calls to pile new sanctions on Damascus.
The diplomatic moves come after Syria denied its troops carried out a massacre in the central village of Treimsa, where activists said dozens of people were slaughtered Thursday by troops and pro-regime militiamen.
Syria has denied there was a massacre while UN observers are probing the reported killings.
On Sunday, violence across Syria killed 105 people, the Observatory said, adding to its toll of more than 17,000 people who have died in the country since the uprising began.
Meanwhile, Morocco declared Syria’s ambassador to Rabat persona non grata and asked him to leave the country, before Damascus said the Morocco envoy in its capital was unwelcome, in a tit-for-tat move.
In Geneva, a top UN relief official said the Damascus regime was guilty of “tremendous political obstruction” that was preventing aid reaching an estimated 850,000 people in need in Syria
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) director of operations John Ging accused the regime of blocking visas for some aid workers.