Bullets and shrapnel shells smashed into homes in the Syrian capital of Damascus overnight as troops battled rebels in the streets, a show of boldness for rebels taking their fight against 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 in the heaviest fighting in the Assad stronghold since the 15-month-old uprising began. U.N. observers said rebels fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the local power plant, damaging parts of it and reducing six buses to charred shells, according to video the observers took of the scene.
Syrian forces showed the regime's willingness to unleash such firepower 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 video posted online.
At least 52 civilians were killed 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, predawn shelling in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. Six children were among 10 killed by a shell that exploded in a house they took cover in during fierce fighting in the coastal region of Latakia, the group said.
In a Daraa mosque, a father stood over his son killed in the shelling, swaddled in a blanket in a hooded sweater, amateur video showed. "I will become a suicide bomber!" the father shouted in grief.
Another video showed tens of thousands of Daraa residents burying their slain victims later Saturday -- singing, dancing and parading the dead in coffins around a large square and giving the mass funeral the appearance of a mass wedding party.
The Damascus violence was a dramatic shift; the capital has been relatively quiet compared with other Syrian cities throughout the uprising.
The rebels' brazenness in the Damascus districts underscored deep-seated Sunni anger against the regime, with residents risking their safety -- and potentially their lives -- to shelter the fighters.
Urban Sunni Syrians had once mostly stayed at arms' length from their mostly rural compatriots leading the 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 have tipped some of their urban brethren in favor of the uprising.
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 latest escalations are another blow to international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan, which aims to end the country's bloodletting. Annan brokered a cease-fire that went into effect on April 12 but has since been violated nearly every day since.
Also Saturday, the foreign minister of Assad's ally Russia said Moscow would continue to oppose the outside use of force, despite its growing concerns about the Syria conflict. Sergey Lavrov called for an international conference to galvanize commitment behind Annan's plan.