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Syrian rebels fire at tanks in Damascus

BEIRUT -- Syrian rebels fired at tanks in Damascus residential districts, armored vehicles blocked the main entrances to a neighborhood and protesters briefly barricaded a highway into the city with bricks and burning tires on Monday, leaving hundreds of cars backed up in some of the worst clashes to hit the tightly controlled capital since the uprising began 16 months ago.

Scenes from the second straight day of fierce clashes in Damascus, unfolding in amateur videos posted online, were the latest evidence that the conflict is fast devolving into a civil war, moving ever closer to the seat of President Bashar Assad's power.

Plumes of black smoke drifted over the city skyline and gunfire could be heard throughout the capital, even in the upscale cafes downtown frequented by members of Assad's regime. The fighting left many streets deserted. Many families have fled, and fear grips many who remain.

"It is a war here, a war," said a woman reached by phone in the Midan neighborhood who said her 5-year-old son had not stopped screaming since the clashes started.

"It seems there is a new strategy to bring the fighting into the center of the capital," Mustafa Osso, an activist inside Syria, told The Associated Press, referring to the rebels who fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. "The capital used to be safe. This will trouble the regime."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of using blackmail to secure a new UN Security Council resolution that could allow the use of force in Syria. A Chapter 7 resolution authorizes actions to enforce sanctions that can ultimately include the use of military force, which U.S. administration and European officials, for now, are playing down as a possibility.

UN special envoy Kofi Annan was expected in Moscow to discuss the Syria crisis with Russian leaders. The meeting, the latest in Annan's efforts to save his faltering peace plan, comes a day after the conflict crossed an important symbolic threshold, with the International Red Cross formally declaring it a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crimes prosecutions.

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