Intense clashes between Syrian rebels and government forces backed by helicopters spread to new areas of Damascus yesterday, including a brief firefight near parliament.
Rebels claimed to have shot down a helicopter in the third successive day of fighting in the seat of president Bashar al-Assad’s power. The violence is the most widespread and sustained in the capital since the Syrian uprising began 16 months ago.
Terrified families were fleeing the city. Residents said they were packing “getaway bags” in case they had to run for their lives.
“My bag has my family’s passports, our university degrees, some cash and medicine,” said a 57-year-old father-of-two, asking that his name not be used. “It is very hard to imagine leaving your home and everything you worked to get, but it’s a matter of life and death.”
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday’s clashes were concentrated in the districts of Kfar Souseh, Nahr Aisha, Midan and Qadam.
But activists and residents said the fighting had reached new areas, with brief firefights in Sabeh Bahrat Square, Baghdad Street and Sahet Arnous in central Damascus, about 500 yards away from the parliament.
The clashes broke up quickly as the rebels fled, but were a significant indicator of the reach of the rebels.
“The streets are completely empty, the shops are closed. People are terrified of what’s next,” said Omar Qabouni, an activist in the north-western Qaboun districts. He said eight people were killed in mortar and tank shelling by regime forces, adding that helicopters were also strafing the area – a sign the Mr Assad is desperate to push rebels back from the capital.
Rebels said they had shot down an army helicopter over Qaboun
“Helicopters are flying at low altitude. It’s easy to target them using anti-aircraft weapons,” a senior rebel officer said. An activist and another rebel fighter also said the helicopter was brought down in Qaboun. Syria’s state-run news agency said troops were still chasing “terrorist elements” who had fled from Nahr Aisha to Midan.
“I can hear cracks of gunfire and some explosions from the direction of Midan,” Damascus activist Maath al-Shami said on Skype. “Black smoke is billowing from the area.”
An amateur video showed two armoured personnel carriers with heavy machine-guns on top along with troops who were said to be advancing in an empty road toward Midan.
Another activist said troops fired mortar rounds at the neighbourhoods of Qaboun and Jobar, causing a major fire near Jobar’s Grand Mosque.
“People are trying to extinguish the fire with water hoses or buckets filled with water,” she said via Skype. She added that regime troops had set up checkpoints around Damascus and were searching cars and demanding identity cards.
Al-Shami said residents of hard-hit areas were fleeing to schools and mosques in safer neighbourhoods. He added that many of the wounded were being treated at secret hospitals for fear they might be detained if taken to official ones.
The clashes are the most serious in the capital since March 2011.
Although the uprising began with largely peaceful protests, a government crackdown prompted many in the opposition to take up arms.