- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 17, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces backed by helicopter gunships battled rebels in heavy clashes in Damascus, a clear escalation in the most serious fighting in the capital since the country’s conflict began last year, activists said Tuesday.

The fierce clashes, which have raged over the past three days in at least four neighborhoods across the city, were the latest sign that Syria‘s civil war is moving ever closer to the heart of President Bashar Assad’s regime. Government forces already have thrown tanks and armored personnel carriers into the battle in the capital, but the use of air power reflected the intensity and seriousness of the fighting.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said Tuesday’s clashes were concentrated in the neighborhoods of Kfar Souseh, Nahr Aisha, Midan and Qadam.

“I can hear cracks of gunfire and some explosions from the direction of Midan,” Mr. al-Shami told the Associated Press via Skype. “Black smoke is billowing from the area.”

Syria‘s state-run news agency said troops still were chasing “terrorist elements” who had fled from Nahr Aisha to Midan. Syria refers to its opponents as terrorists.

An amateur video showed two armored personnel carriers with heavy machine guns on top along with troops who were said to be advancing in an empty road toward Midan on Tuesday.

Activists have dubbed the fighting in the capital the “Damascus volcano” in what appears to be an attempt to bring the fighting into Syria‘s seat of power.

The clashes are the most sustained and widespread in the capital since the start of the uprising against Mr. Assad in March last year and a crackdown that activists say has claimed the lives of more than 17,000 people. In the past, clashes happened at night in the capital. Now, the fighting rages during the day — a sign of the growing strength and boldness of the rebels.

That increased fighting has brought bloodshed to the heart of Damascus — and Syria‘s largest city, Aleppo — which are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Mr. Assad’s regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Mr. Assad falls.

Activists also reported clashes and shelling in the rebel held towns of Rastan and Talbiseh in the central province of Homs.

One amateur video posted online showed helicopters firing missiles in Talbiseh, while another video showed gunmen attacking what appeared to be a government position in Rastan. The caption said the rebels were carrying “intensive operations” in support of Damascus and Homs.

As the violence across the country has spiraled out of control, diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed have seemingly come to a dead end.

Much of the international community has condemned Mr. Assad’s crackdown, but world powers remain deeply divided over who is responsible and how to stop the fighting. The U.S. and many Western nations have called on Mr. Assad to leave power, while Russia, China and Iran have stood by the regime.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was headed to China on Tuesday as part of a diplomatic push to get Beijing and Moscow to back a tougher response to attacks by Mr. Assad’s regime. Mr. Ban’s trip comes ahead of a U.N. Security Council vote this week. A Western-backed resolution calls for sanctions and invokes Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.

A Chapter 7 resolution authorizes actions that ultimately can include the use of military force, which U.S. administration and European officials — for now — are playing down as a possibility.

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