- Associated Press - Saturday, June 9, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Bullets and shrapnel shells smashed into homes in the Syrian capital overnight as troops battled rebels in the streets in the heaviest fighting yet in Damascus. The violence marked an increased boldness among rebels in taking their fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad to the center of his power.

For nearly 12 hours of fighting that lasted into the early hours Saturday, rebels armed mainly with assault rifles fought Syrian forces. U.N. observers said rebels fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the local power plant, damaging parts of it and charring six buses, according to video the observers took of the scene.

Syrian forces showed the regime’s willingness to unleash elevated force in the capital: At least three tank shells slammed into residential areas in the central Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, an activist said. Intense exchanges of assault-rifle fire marked the clash, according to residents and amateur videos.

At least 42 civilians were killed in violence around the country outside Damascus on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group. Among them were 20, including nine women and children, who died in heavy pre-dawn shelling in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against Mr.  Assad began in March 2011. The group’s figures could not be independently confirmed.

In a Daraa mosque, a father stood over his blanket-swaddled son, who was killed in the shelling.

“I will become a suicide bomber!” the father shouted in grief, according to an amateur video of the scene.

Later Saturday, tens of thousands of Daraa residents buried the slain from the shelling. They sang, danced and paraded the dead in coffins around a large square, giving the mass funeral the appearance of a mass wedding party, according to footage of the scene.

The Damascus violence was a dramatic shift, since the capital has been relatively quiet compared with other Syrian cities throughout the uprising. Damascus, Mr. Assad’s stronghold, and the northern city of Aleppo, the country’s largest, are under the firm grip of security forces.

The rebels’ brazenness in appearing in the Damascus districts underscored deep-seated Sunni anger against the regime, with the neighborhoods’ residents risking their safety — and potentially their lives — to shelter the fighters. Residents burned tires to block the advance of Syrian troops, sending plumes of smoke into the air, according to amateur video of one scene.

Urban Sunni Syrians once mostly stayed at arms’ length from their mostly rural compatriots leading the 15-month uprising, fearing the instability that their leaderless, chaotic movement would bring.

But it appears a series of massacres of mainly Sunni peasants over the past few weeks has tipped some of their urban brethren in favor of the uprising. One rebel supporter in Qaboun said the recent mass killings made people see rebel fighters more as protectors against Mr. Assad’s forces.

“The regime has forced the rebels into the city. When they commit attacks or massacres or arrests, they come in to defend residents,” he said.

The most recent mass killing was on Wednesday in central Syria, where activists say up to 78 people were hacked, burned and stabbed in the farming village of Mazraat al-Qubair. The opposition and regime have traded blame over the slayings.

“The heart of this revolt is the poor, jobless youth in the countryside. But that is gathering strength in other places, in Aleppo, in Damascus and even the Kurdish regions,” Syria expert Joshua Landis said.

“The psychological state of the people, after watching these massacres, is so far advanced. People are ready to do whatever it takes. They are frightened; it could come next to them.”

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