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Rebels keep pressure on Assad

Protests in Syria gain momentum as rebels call for President Bashar al-Assad to quit.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

AMMAN - Syrian rebels kept up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad following the assassination of three top lieutenants, fighting loyalist troops within sight of the presidential palace and near government headquarters, residents said on Thursday.

An official source said the president, who has made no statement or public appearance since Wednesday's stunning bomb attack on a crisis meeting of defence and security chiefs, was still commanding operations from his Damascus office.

But opposition sources and a Western diplomat said the embattled leader was now in the coastal city of Latakia.

"Our information is that (Assad) is at his palace in Latakia and that he may have been there for days," said a senior opposition figure, who declined to be named. The palace, which Assad has used before to conduct official business, is located in hills near the city, Syria's main Mediterranean port.

Latakia province is home to several towns inhabited by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect.

The diplomat, who is following events in Syria, told Reuters: "Everyone is looking now at how well Assad can maintain the command structure. The killings yesterday were a huge blow, but not fatal."

Residents said there was no let-up in the heaviest fighting - now in its fifth day - to hit the Syrian capital in a 16-month revolt against Assad, whose family has dominated the pivotal Arab country for 42 years.

The battles encroached within sight of the presidential palace, near the security headquarters where Wednesday's emergency meeting was held, with videos showing clouds of smoke rising over the skyline.

The U.N. Security Council put off a scheduled vote on a Syria resolution until Thursday and U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally, to try to persuade Moscow to drop support for him.

The bombing that killed Assad's brother-in-law, defence minister and a top general triggered fierce army retaliation with artillery unleashed on rebels massed in several districts and armed mostly with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

FIGHTING NEAR PRESIDENTIAL PALACE

A video from overnight in the neighbourhood of Sayed Zainab shows a makeshift clinic in a house, with blankets and medical supplies strewn all over the floor and a man shouting directions on a megaphone as men carry in mutilated bodies on sheets.

Some of the bodies were blackened, perhaps from a blast or a fire. Others were blown apart apparently by high explosive.

Residents in the Midan and Kafr Souseh districts reported constant blasts and heavy gunfire as helicopter gunships buzzed overhead.

"The shelling did not stop all night. Shelling could be heard in all the city. It was loud. There were also sounds of clashes. Not many people are venturing out. I can't even find a taxi, so I'm waiting for somebody to pick us up," a resident in Damascus said, speaking by telephone.

"Everyone in the neighbourhood is arming themselves. Some with machineguns, some with shotguns. Some even just with knives. And whoever doesn't have anything just tries to stay awake and stay alert as much as they can," said another resident, speaking by phone from the Midan area.

"I can't even tell you what is going on outside because I've shuttered the windows and locked the doors. I just hear every now and then the gunfire, it's like it's in the room."

Many Damascenes were reported fleeing pockets of fighting.

"We've had a lot of people come in from last evening, from other neighbourhoods like refugees, and people gather around them to hear what they've seen. My neighbour tries to see if they have relatives here or see if there is someone that can host them for a while," said a woman contacted by telephone.

Checkpoints around Midan and the ancient walled Old City of Damascus had been removed, residents said. It was unclear if security forces had changed tactics to stop rebels targeting soldiers, or if it was a temporary move in the heat of battle.

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