Rebels battle Syrian forces in Damascus

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The fighting was sparked in two neighborhoods, Qaboun and Barzeh, during the day Friday, when troops opened fire on anti-Assad opposition gatherings and rebels responded, witnesses said. Blasts shook the districts until about 1:30 a.m. on Saturday. In the fringe neighborhood of Kfar Souseh, fighting began after rebels attacked a Syrian forces checkpoint.

“We spent a night of fear,” one resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. The resident said the shooting and explosions in the capital “were the worst so far.”

At least five people were killed in Qaboun, according to activists’ video that showed the bodies.

Also Saturday, troops shelled parts of the central city of Homs, one of the main battlegrounds of the uprising, and stormed into the city’s posh neighborhood of Ghouta, conducting raids.

The latest escalations are another blow to international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan, which aims to end the country’s bloodletting. Mr. Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, brokered a cease-fire that went into effect on April 12 but that has been violated nearly every day since and never properly took hold.

Thousands have been killed since the crisis began in March last year. The U.N.’s latest estimate is 9,000 dead, but that is from April, and the world body has been unable to update it. Syrian activists put the toll at more than 13,000.

Also Saturday, the foreign minister of Mr. Assad’s ally Russia said Moscow would continue to oppose the outside use of force, despite its growing concerns about the Syrian conflict. Sergey Lavrov, the minister, called for an international conference to galvanize commitment behind Mr. Annan’s plan.

Efforts by Western and Arab nations to help the opposition have been hampered by fragmentation amid the movement. The main opposition movement, the Syrian National Council, has been plagued by infighting.

The council gathered Saturday in Turkey to elect a new leader nearly three weeks after its Paris-based president, Burhan Ghalioun, offered to step down over mounting criticism of his leadership. The front-runner to replace him was Abdulbaset Sieda, a member of Syria’s minority Kurd community, SNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani told Associated Press Television.

Mr. Sieda’s elevation to the post could be part of an attempt to appeal to Syria’s significant Kurdish minority, which largely has stayed on the sidelines of the uprising. The community is deeply suspicious that Sunni Arabs who dominate the opposition will be no more likely to provide them greater rights than Mr. Assad’s regime has.

A vote on the new leader was expected late Saturday, but it was postponed to Sunday with no immediate explanation.

Also Saturday, U.N. observers in Syria ostensibly to monitor the cease-fire issued the first independent video images from the scene of the reported massacre in Mazraat al-Qubair.

The video, taken in the U.N. visit a day earlier, showed blood splashed on a wall pockmarked with bullet holes and soaking a nearby mattress. A shell punched through one wall of a house. Another home was burned on the inside, and dried blood was splashed on floors.

One man wearing a red-and-white-checked scarf to cover his face pointed at a 2008 calendar adorning a wall, bearing the photo of a lightly-bearded, handsome man.

“This is the martyr,” the resident, sobbing. He sat on the floor, amid strewn colorful blankets, heaving with tears.

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