Syrian forces surround rebels

Damascus residents said they saw snipers deployed on rooftops.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - Syrian government forces encircled rebel fighters in Damascus on Monday, waging a second day of fighting that residents described as the worst to hit the capital since the 17-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began.

Armoured vehicles rolled into the southern district of Midan and were reinforced by security forces surrounding the area in the late afternoon. Residents said they saw snipers deployed on rooftops.

"There are troops everywhere, I can hear ambulances," said a resident near Midan. "It feels like a war in Damascus."

The spread of fighting in the capital comes as United Nations envoy Kofi Annan starts a two-day visit to Moscow to try to promote a peace plan for Syria. He will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has resisted Western calls to increase pressure on Assad.

A video uploaded by opposition activists aired on al-Jazeera network showed men in jeans hiding behind sandbagged Damascus alleyways, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Fighting raged on and off in Midan and Tadamon on Monday after unprecedented battles on Sunday.

A fighter told Reuters rebels could not retreat after a few hours of fighting, as they had in previous incursions into the capital, because they were surrounded by security forces and checkpoints.

"They want to leave. If they were able to leave they would have left," he said. "The whole area is surrounded."

The government has said little about the unrest in the capital. State television reported on Monday that security forces were chasing "terrorist groups" that had fled to some neighbourhoods in Damascus.

Anti-government activists said clashes so close to the seat of government showed that rebels were chipping away at state power in a capital once seen as Assad's impenetrable stronghold.

"When you turn your guns against the heart of Damascus, on Midan, you have lost the city. The rebels in the street have the support of families across Damascus," said Damascus-based activist Imad Moaz.

Activist accounts are hard to verify because the government restricts access to international media.