Amman: Rebels battled government forces in Damascus on Monday, in the most violent clashes Syria's capital has seen since the start of the year-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Putting further pressure on the Syrian authorities, ally Russia backed a call by the International Committee of the Red Cross for daily, two-hour ceasefires to allow for life-saving humanitarian operations in areas worst-hit by the uprising.
Two days after a double car bombing killed nearly 30 in the city, Monday's gunfight near the centre of Assad's power base appeared to be an attempt by rebels to show they still pose a serious challenge after being forced out of Homs and Idlib.
On Monday, rebel forces in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor also came under attack. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)said army defectors bombed a security convoy in the southern region of Deraa, killing eight and wounding 27.
There were differing accounts of the violence in Damascus, which erupted shortly after midnight in the upmarket al-Mezze district, home to many embassies and security facilities.
The SOHR said up to six rebels had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the house of an army general before taking refuge in a building which was then the focus of a fierce gunfight.
The official Syrian news agency Sana said the authorities had stormed a "terrorist hideout" and that three rebels and one member of the security forces were killed in the raid.
"These clashes were the most violent and the closest to the security force headquarters in Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution," said SOHR director Rami Abdulrahman.
Video footage showed the top two floors of an apartment block scorched by fire, its walls pitted with bullet holes. Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified because the authorities have barred access to rights groups and journalists.
The SOHR later reported clashes between government forces and rebels in Qaboun, in northeast Damascus, saying three explosions were heard. In the northern district of Barzeh, more gunfire could be heard as police carried out raids.
The armed confrontation came just two days after two car bombs killed a total of at least 27 people in the heart of the city, in a sign that the capital, once apparently immune to the bloodshed, might be starting to sink into the mayhem.
Assad is fighting for the survival of his family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades, and has rejected calls from much of the West and the Arab world to quit.
He has received staunch backing in the U.N. Security Council from Russia and China. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday threw its weight behind an ICRC call for daily ceasefires -- an idea the Syrian authorities had previously resisted.
"(Russia and the ICRC) called on the Syrian government and all armed groups who oppose it to agree without delay to daily humanitarian pauses," the ministry said after a meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ICRC head Jakob Kellenberger.
The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died in 12 months of turmoil and some 230,000 forced to flee their homes. The government says about 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed and rejects allegations of brutality, saying it faces a foreign-backed "terrorist" insurgency.
Moscow and Beijing have twice vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions that condemned Syria's yearlong assault on rebels.
In an attempt to forge international unity on the issue, diplomats said France would submit a statement supporting U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's on-going peace efforts in Syria thereby sending a strong message to Assad to end the violence.
It will not be a formal resolution, which carries legal weight, but rather a "presidential statement", which is generally non-binding but still needs unanimous backing.
Veteran diplomat Annan dispatched a team of five experts to Damascus on Monday to discuss his proposals to deploy international monitors in Syria to try to stem the bloodshed.
A separate team of experts from the United Nations and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, led by the Syrian government, also started a mission to assess humanitarian needs, a source close to the mission said on Monday.
Assad's troops have won back much lost ground from rebel control in recent weeks, but the violence has not abated and analysts warn the uprising could degenerate into civil war, pitting Assad's minority Alawite sect against the Sunnis, who make up 75 percent of the 23-million population.
That it turn would add to strains along the Middle East's sectarian divide, pitting Assad's backer Iran, and Tehran's Shi'ite allies in Lebanon and Iraq, against the Sunni powers which dominate Arab governments from Egypt to the Gulf.
Witnesses said pro-Assad forces stormed the eastern tribal Sunni Muslim city of Deir al-Zor on Monday to seize areas previously held by the Free Syrian Army - a lightly armed and disparate resistance force led by army defectors.
At least one civilian, named as 60-year-old Adnan Khalifa, died in the assault, residents told Reuters.
"I heard the sound of several explosions. They could be tanks firing their guns or rebels using dynamite to try and slow down their advance," Tareq, one of the residents, said, speaking by phone from the city, which lies on the road to Iraq.
SANA reported that 13 civilians were shot dead by opposition "terrorists" near Syria's third largest city Homs on Sunday and said rebels had also destroyed a railway bridge linking Damascus to Deraa.
Turkey has raised the prospect of setting up a "buffer zone" in Syria to protect those trying to flee. Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Department said on Monday 279 Syrians had crossed the border between March 18-19, bring the total number of Syrian refugees in the country to 16,446.
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Updated Date: Mar 20, 2012 08:50:29 IST