Syrian rebels have made a new push into Damascus, clashing heavily with troops in the rebellious suburbs of the capital and firing mortars at a presidential palace and a Palestinian refugee camp, activists said.
The regime stronghold of Damascus has seen a surge in violence this week with some of the fiercest clashes in months. In recent days, opposition fighters also stepped up assaults on high-ranking supporters of President Bashar Assad in the capital.
The rebels have also been trying to break the resistance of a pro-government Palestinian faction, which could drag the half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria into the civil war.
The new challenge from rebels in the capital comes as the US and Britain take steps to bolster the fragmented Syrian opposition. Prime Minister David Cameron said his government planned to change its policy and deal directly with opposition military leaders. Previously, Britain has had contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures inside Syria.
He urged newly re-elected US President Barack Obama to join Britain in opening direct talks with rebel fighters, and said they must do more to end the civil war that has killed more than 36,000, according to activists' tallies.
Rebels fired several mortar rounds at the Syrian president's residence in the Muhajireen district of in central Damascus, but failed to hit their mark, said Bassam al-Dada, an adviser to the commander of the Free Syrian Army, Col Riad al-Assad.
"This was a very special operation that was planned for a while," al-Dada said by telephone.
There are two presidential palaces in Damascus. One is located in Muhajireen district in the north-western part of Damascus, and is known as the Muhajireen Palace. The other residence is known as the People's Palace and it is located on Mount Qasioun, overlooking the capital.
Before the uprising began last year, Assad was known to spend much of his time at the Muhajireen Palace, although he used the sprawling compound on Qasioun mountain to receive dignitaries. Assad's current whereabouts are unknown, and the rebels' targeting of the palace was largely a symbolic strike on the Syrian leader's power.
The latest fighting was heaviest in the suburbs of Damascus, including in Ghouta and Harasta to the east of the capital, activists said. The Syrian military has been shelling another suburb, Beit Saham, with tanks and mortars, killing at least 18 people in that district alone, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.