Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on Thursday struck back at rebels following a bombing that killed several key members of the embattled leader's inner circle.
Assad – whose grip on power in increasingly tenuous – dropped out of public view following Wednesday's bombing. While the Syrian president does not appear in public often, analysts regarded his absence following such a serious blow as remarkable.
Later on Thursday, Syria's state television broadcast pictures of Assad, showing him at a ceremony where he swore in new Defense Minister Fahad Jassem Al-Freij, who succeeded Daoud Rajah, who died in a bombing by anti-government forces, Wednesday in the Syrian capital.
Thursday’s fighting in the once-impregnable Assad stronghold of Damascus saw government forces fire heavy machine guns and mortars in battles with rebels throughout the capital.
Adding to the confusion, Syria’s state-run TV warned citizens that gunmen were disguising themselves in military uniforms to carry out attacks.
“Gunmen are wearing Republican Guard uniforms in the neighborhoods of Tadamon, Midan, Qaa and Nahr Aisha, proving that they are planning attacks and crimes,” SANA said.
Many residents were fleeing Damascus’ Mezzeh neighborhood after troops surrounded it and posted snipers on rooftops while exchanging gunfire with opposition forces, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said rebels damaged one helicopter and disabled three military vehicles.
Meanwhile, thousands of Syrians streamed across the Syrian border into Lebanon, fleeing as fighting in the capital entered its fifth straight day.
The UN observer force commander, Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood – who has been sharply critical not only of Assad's brutal crackdown, but the world community's inability to take decisive action to end the crisis in Syria – condemned the violence and encouraged a diplomatic solution, which appears increasingly out of reach.
He spoke just hours before a planned U.N. Security council vote on whether to renew his mission’s mandate, which expires Friday, and impose new sanctions on the Damascus regime.
“It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria,” Mood said in Damascus.
The UN Security Council delayed a vote on the Syria crisis due to persistent opposition to decisive action by Moscow.
Russia – which has billions of dollars tied to the Assad regime – has stood by the Syrian regime and vowed to veto any measures that could lead to international military intervention.
UN rights officials say at least 12,500 people – most of them civilians – have been killed in the 16-month reign of terror launched by Assad in hopes of quelling a popular uprising that has now blossomed into civil war.
The world body's top rights watchdog, Navi Pillay, has openly said there is amble evidence to try Assad – whose forces are accused of the systemic rape, torture, kidnapping, and mass execution of regime opponents and their families – for crimes against humanity.
The spiraling chaos in Syria has also contributed to the price of crude oil topping $91 dollars a barrel amid market concerns, and led Israel to the south to place its military on high alert while canceling weekend leaves for IDF officers and soldiers.