DAMASCUS — Syrian dissidents declared the battle to “liberate” Damascus has begun as heavy fighting raged across the capital yesterday and Russia said it will do everything to support a tattered peace plan.
The proclamation by the Free Syrian Army came as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said the 16-month-old crisis, which is increasingly being described as a civil war, was at a “critical time.”
The spokesman for the FSA’s Joint Command, Col Kassem Saadeddine, said in Homs that “victory is nigh” and that the fighting would not stop until the whole of the capital has been conquered.
“We have transferred the battle from Damascus province to the capital,” said Saadeddine. “We have a clear plan to control the whole of Damascus. We only have light weapons, but it’s enough.”
“Expect surprises,” he added, without elaborating.
Fighting between Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army has raged in Damascus since Sunday, and the FSA announced on Monday the launch of a full-scale offensive dubbed “the Damascus volcano and earthquakes of Syria.”
Hours later, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government helicopters fired into Qaboon district of Damascus, while clashes broke out in Al Midan and Al Hajar al Aswad neighbourhoods.
“Government forces used helicopters equipped with heavy machine guns to strike the district of Qaboon,” the Observatory said.
An activist in the capital said that FSA fighters had blocked an attempt by the army to storm Qaboon.
“The army tried to raid the neighbourhood yesterday but the FSA stopped them,” said the activist, who calls himself Omar.
Backed by tanks and low-flying helicopter gunships, the army randomly pounded the neighbourhood with mortars and heavy machine gun fire, he said.
An activist who said he was in Al Midan said via Skype that the army was shelling the neighbourhood “hysterically.”
“The collapsing government has gone mad,” said the man, who identified himself as Abu Musab.
“The army has tried to storm the district, but the Free Syrian Army has stopped them. So they have intensified their shelling. They are shelling everything,” he said, adding Ghazwat Badr mosque had been destroyed.
Witnesses also reported heavy machinegun fire in Sabaa Bahrat Square in the heart of Damascus, as well as in Baghdad Street, a main road nearby.
The government vowed on Monday not to surrender the capital.
“You will never get Damascus,” read the headline in Al Watan newspaper, which is close to the government.
In that context, the Israeli army’s intelligence chief
said Assad has moved troops from the Golan Heights next to Israel towards Damascus and other internal conflict zones.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin told visiting Annan he would “do everything” to support the former UN chief’s plan to end the conflict.
“We will do everything that depends on us to support your efforts,” Putin told Annan at the start of their Kremlin meeting.
Annan told Putin “the Syrian crisis is at a critical time” before the meeting was closed to the media.
While Annan is in Moscow, UN chief Ban Ki-Moon was due in Beijing yesterday, also on a mission to get support for tougher action on Syria. — AFP