Defector: ‘The battle for Damascus is coming’

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Story highlights

NEW: U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan heads to Moscow for talks

NEW: Clinton says U.S. seeks allies to lobby Russia to take harder line with Syria

A colonel who defected and joined rebels says the battle for Damascus is coming

Russia's foreign minister accuses some diplomats of blackmail

CNN  — 

Increasing violence in the Syrian capital is pointing toward a major fight ahead, a rebel spokesman told CNN Monday.

“The battle for Damascus is coming,” said Abdulhameed Zakaria, a Syrian army colonel and doctor who defected and joined the opposition Free Syrian Army in Istanbul.

Video from the capital on Monday showed regime tanks in some streets and clashes with members of the opposition.

Video from activists in the central Damascus neighborhood of Medan showed people running and screaming amid loud sounds. It was unclear whether the blasts were gunshots or mortar fire.

Another video shows rebel fighters facing off against what appears to be a tank in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Tadamon, firing rifles, a heavy machine gun and a rocket-propelled grenade. They shoot at it repeatedly from behind a barricade down a rubble-strewn street, only to have a man tell them to stop wasting ammunition.

CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the videos. Meanwhile, state-run TV showed a woman driving a car in Medan saying there was “nothing going on right now.”

Asked about reports that there was shelling in Medan, she responded, “No, nothing is happening, thank God.” But apparent gunfire could be heard in the background as she spoke.

With violence spreading throughout the country, the Red Cross announced that the conflict is a civil war throughout the country.

The declaration officially applies the Geneva Conventions to violence throughout the country. International humanitarian law now applies “wherever hostilities take place,” the organization said Monday.

The Red Cross does not use the general term “civil war,” and instead declares a “noninternational armed conflict.” In April, the organization declared such a conflict in Homs, Hama and Idlib, but hostilities have spread enough that the conflict exists throughout the country, ICRC spokesman Sean Maguire said.

“Part of its legal mandate is to determine when international humanitarian law applies,” Maguire told CNN. “We make a determination as to whether a conflict exists.”

“In theory,” he said, the Red Cross announcement could affect prosecutions by the International Criminal Court in the future. If a prosecuting authority is established for Syria, it could point to the announcement that the Geneva Conventions applied and to ways that they were violated. However, for the court to look at the situation in Syria, a referral from the U.N. Security Council would be required, Maguire noted.

At least 97 people were killed Monday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC). There were 30 deaths in Hama, 21 in Homs, 13 in Aleppo, 11 in Damascus, eight in Daraa, seven in Deir Ezzor, four in the Damascus suburbs and three in Idlib, the LCC said.

Monday’s fighting in Damascus follows what opposition activists called a massacre of more than 200 people in the town of Tremseh, near Hama, last week. But a top Syrian official disputed the death toll and the massacre allegation, telling reporters over the weekend that government troops were fighting armed opposition.

U.N. monitors reported Sunday that the attack appeared to target “army defectors and activists,” citing accounts by more than two dozen villagers.

The monitors said Syrian forces began shelling the town on Thursday morning. Soldiers entered after the bombardment, conducting house-to-house searches and demanding identification from the men they found. “Numerous” people were then killed after their identification was checked, and some other men were taken from the village, the monitors said.

The monitors found more than 50 homes that had been burned or destroyed, with “pools of blood and brain matter” seen in several homes. The dead included a Free Syrian Army leader who was shot and doctor and his children who died when their home was struck by a mortar shell, the monitors said in a statement issued Sunday. However, the monitors said the number of dead and wounded in Tremseh remained unclear.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters Sunday that opposition fighters had used the village as a base for attacks on government forces. He said only 37 “gunmen” and two civilians were killed in the operation in Tremseh and that no heavy weapons or aircraft were used, according to comments carried by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

CNN cannot confirm details of reported violence because Syria has restricted access to the country by international journalists.

Amid the ongoing fighting, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan headed to Moscow for talks with the Syrian government’s leading ally. Annan met Monday with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and is set to hold talks on Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin, Annan spokesman Ahmed Fawzi told CNN.

No details of the talks were immediately available. But Lavrov complained Monday that Western diplomats are trying to “blackmail” Russia into signing onto a tough new U.N. Security Council resolution targeting Damascus. Britain has proposed new steps to press Syria’s government to end the conflict under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which carries the threat of additional sanctions or even military force.

“Unfortunately, we have seen some elements of blackmail,” Lavrov said. He said Moscow has been told that unless it signs onto a Chapter 7 resolution, “They will not agree to extend the U.N. observers’ mandate. I consider it a totally counterproductive and a dangerous approach, because it is unacceptable to use the observers as the bargaining chip.”

He slammed Western countries that are trying to change Russia’s stance.

“The track record of those who try to make us step aside from this position has a lot of deplorable instances of unilateral military actions, and the results are well remembered by everybody,” Lavrov said.

Russia and China, which have commercial deals with Syria, have used their veto power to block some of the toughest draft resolutions against the Syrian regime in the Security Council.

During a visit to the Middle East on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States is trying to get other countries to lobby Beijing and Moscow to support tougher steps against embattled Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

“We are trying to intervene in a way that brings about an end to the violence and a transition to a democratic future that doesn’t require adding to the violence further militarizing the conflict, perhaps killing more people and pushing them across the borders,” Clinton said.

As long as al-Assad has the support of its longtime ally Iran and has Russia “uncertain about whether to side in any more dramatic way that it already has, he feels that he can keep going,” Clinton said.
“That’s the message we want to reverse.”

Numerous countries, including the United States, have criticized Russia, saying its actions in the Security Council have helped the Syrian regime continue a brutal crackdown on the opposition.

Meanwhile, many nations have expelled Syrian ambassadors, with Morocco becoming the latest to do so Monday. Syria responded by declaring Morocco’s ambassador persona non grata.

Since the crisis began in March 2011, the United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed in the violence; opposition activists say more than 15,000 have died.

Throughout the conflict, al-Assad’s government has consistently blamed violence on “armed terrorist groups,” and reported on its security forces “martyred” in attacks.

CNN’s Josh Levs, Ivan Watson, Hamdi Alkhshali, Holly Yan, Ben Brumfield, Phil Black and Samya Ayish contributed to this report.