Heavy clashes between rebels and regular troops erupted in Damascus on Sunday, in the “most intense” fighting in the capital since the start of the anti-regime revolt in Syria 16 months ago, a monitoring group said.
“The regular army fired mortar rounds into several suburbs” where rebels of the Free Syrian Army are entrenched, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“They have never been this intense,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.
He said the fighting was heaviest in the Tadamon, Kfar Sousa, Nahr Aisha and Sidi Qadad neighborhoods.
“The security forces are attempting to take control of these neighborhoods but so far they have not succeeded,” he added.
The Local Coordination Committees, which organizes anti-regime protests in Syria, said plumes of black smoke were Sunday night billowing out of Tadamon and that loud explosions were heard in Nahr Aisha.
The Observatory earlier said violence across Syria on Sunday killed at least 55 people, including a girl who died along with three other people when the army rained shells on the town of Rastan, a rebel stronghold in the central province of Homs.
The Britain-based watchdog estimates that more than 17,000 Syrians have died since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began on March 15, 2011.
Annan to seek Putin’s help
Meanwhile U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan will seek President Vladimir Putin’s help in ending the conflict in Syria during a visit to Moscow starting on Monday, with pressure mounting on Russia to stop propping up Assad.
Diplomats say Moscow has sent mixed signals in its comments on Syria since stepping up its diplomatic involvement in the past week but see no change in its position at the United Nations, where it continues to defend President Assad.
The Syrian opposition told Russia bluntly at talks last week that its protection of Assad was prolonging the bloodshed, and French President Francois Hollande made a new appeal to Moscow to stop blocking peace efforts at the weekend.
Announcing that Putin would meet Annan on Tuesday, following talks between the U.N. envoy and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday, the Kremlin press service said only that Putin would underline his support for the envoy’s peace plan.
“It is the Russian side’s understanding that this plan is the only viable platform for the solution of Syria’s internal problems,” the president’s press service said in a statement released on Sunday.
Russia, which has a right of veto on the U.N. Security Council, provides arms to Syria and has repeatedly blocked Western resolutions calling for foreign intervention since the uprising against Assad’s rule began 16 months ago.
Moscow said last week it would block a new resolution being discussed by the Security Council on extending a monitoring mission in Syria if it included a threat of sanctions, and proposed its own resolution - including no sanctions threat.
Although some experts say Russia may be considering a shift in its stance if it becomes clear that Assad will be forced out of power, others see no change.
“Moscow still supports Assad and does not call for Assad to step down. And without the Kremlin ceasing its support for Assad, there is no opportunity for the Syrian crisis to be resolved peacefully,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank and an expert on Putin.
“There were and will be no changes in the Kremlin’s rhetoric or actions,” she said by telephone.