BREAKING: Heavy fighting in Damascus as coup attempt reported in progress

2:53 PM PT: Reuters has this report out this afternoon:

From central Damascus, war seems ever closer

5:05 p.m. EST, December 17, 2012
(This story was reported by independent journalists, whose names are withheld for security reasons)

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - From the center of Damascus, Syrians can see the shrouds of smoke rising overhead and feel the shake of explosions that warn of a frontline creeping ever closer.

The same squares where President Bashar al-Assad once drew tens of thousands to cheer in support lie empty and walled off by concrete barriers up to two meters (six feet) high.

Damascus is bracing itself after nearly two years of civil conflict as rebel forces seep deeper into the capital, and anxiety is etched across the faces of people in the city center.

"There is fear and pain in people's hearts, a feeling of despair and paralysis because of the enormity of the crisis," said Suad, an architect in the Salihiya neighborhood. "The sounds of all the different explosions - mortar, artillery and warplanes - suggest the frontline is getting closer," she said.

This ancient city has survived conquests down the ages, from Alexander the Great to early Arab caliphs and Crusaders. Sacked by Mongol invaders in 1400, it was later taken by the Turks and seized more than once by European armies last century. Now Damascus is under attack again, this time by its own people. More...

From the Jerusalem Post we have this report:

Iranian official heads to Moscow for Syria talks

12/17/2012 22:26
Amid escalating violence in Syria, Iranian deputy FM heads to Russia to discuss crisis with counterpart Mikhail Bogdanov.

As pressure grows on Syrian president Bashar Assad to step down, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Countries, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, headed to Moscow on Monday to discuss the crisis with his Russian counterpart Mikhail Bogdanov. More...

RIA Novosti is reporting:

Two Russians Abducted in Syria - Embassy

23:53 17/12/2012

BEIRUT, December 17 (RIA Novosti) - The Russian embassy in Syria confirmed on Monday that two Russian nationals had been abducted near the western Syrian port city of Latakia.

“Two Russian citizens, who worked in the country, have been abducted near Latakia. The embassy takes search measures in close cooperation with the local authorities,” embassy spokesman Sergei Markov said.

He said that circumstances surrounding the abduction are being studied and refused to give any further details citing security concerns. More...

Tearing down Assad’s portrait at the Infantry School Aleppo | 17 Dec 2012

Another child killed by Assad today | 17 Dec 2012 | EXTREMELY GRAPHIC

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There are reports of heavy fighting in many areas of Damascus this morning, as NBC Richard Engels is reported to have gone missing and Syrian VP Farouk Al-Sharaa has been speaking out in favor of a negotiated settlement with the opposition. He is speaking out everywhere. From the Associated Press we get this report:

We can’t win, Assad’s vice-president says

Dec 17, 2012 10:24 AM ET
BEIRUT — Syria’s longtime vice president said the army cannot defeat the rebels fighting to topple the regime, the first admission by a top government official that a victory by President Bashar Assad is unlikely.

In an interview with Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar published on Monday, Farouk al-Sharaa offered the unusually bleak public assessment of the civil war.

“All these opposition forces can only conclude the battle to topple the regime if their goal is to push the country into chaos a cycle of violence that has no end,” al-Sharaa said in the interview. “I don’t see that what the security forces and army units are doing will lead to a definitive victory.” More...

Farouk was sidelined after the July Damascus explosion that took out four of Assad's top people, and hasn't had any real power or influence since. Also today al Akhbar English is running this exclusive interview:

Syrian VP Farouk Al-Sharaa Proposes Alternative to War

By: Ibrahim al-Amin
Monday, December 17, 2012
Syrian Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa is in the heart of the action, but not in the decision-making circles. He keeps in touch with a few officials, speaks to President [Bashar al-Assad] from time to time, and communicates with some of the leadership.

His residence is under the same security precautions as those of figures in the decision-making circles, and so are his movements. But he is full of energy and also keeps communication channels open with members of the opposition and figures, who are not connected to the state or the regime.

Sharaa has his own views on the daily events, including criticisms and apprehensions, which he kept expressing in official meetings, but without going public with them in the media.

Something has changed, however. More...

Amidst all of tis come twitter reports of a coup in progress lead by forces loyal to the veep.

Stay tuned. More, later....

And we have this report from EAWorldView of how this increasingly desperate regime is stepping up the slaughter of its people:
Regime Warplanes Strike in Damascus for 1st Time

December 17, 2012 at 5:13 | James Miller

p>1630 GMT: According to Reuters, hundreds of Palestinians have fled across the border into Lebanon after the Yarmouk camp was bombed yesterday, killing at least 25.

A Reuters witness at the border said they came in buses and cars piled high with belongings. A Lebanese security source said the refugees from Damascus' Yarmouk Camp suburb had tried to flee on Sunday but the road was blocked by fighting.

A video reportedly shows refugees fleeing in cars, buses, and on foot:

1605 GMT: Like most Syrians, the average person just wants to avoid being killed. Over the last two days there have been a steady stream of reports that people are trying to take advantage of lulls in the violence to flee the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus. However, with so many suburbs already engaged in fierce fights, and with every major city in central Syria facing a similar fate, where will these people go?

Another report - these buildings match the architecture of the Yarmouk camp:

1552 GMT: For several weeks we've been tracking reports that Assad forces stationed at the Mezzeh airport in Damascus (map) have fire Type-63 and/or GRAD rockets at positions around the capital. A new video, uploaded today, is being shared by activists and claims to show a rocket attack on the Yarmouk Camp (see previous updates). This visually matches the Mezzeh airport, and the weather is correct:

1538 GMT: In a video posted yesterday, the head PR officer for Syrian intelligence, Alaaddin al-Sabbagh, defected from the Assad regime.

‘I urge the officers from different security services, ambassadors, ministers, delegates, diplomats and military attaches whom I taught and know me very well to join the revolution.”

“The Syrian revolution is open to everyone before the regime collapses completely. The regime today is clinically dead. Long Live Syria, free.”

1530 GMT: According to Reuters, Syrian troops and tanks have massed outside of the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus (map). Naharnet has this flash report (40 minutes old, no further details):

Rebel military council of Damascus: The headquarters of the PFLP-GC in the Yarmuk camp has been stormed.

We're not sure what exactly is happening yet, but the fighting in the Yarmouk camp is a disturbing development. For weeks skirmishes have been fought here, occasionally breaking into fierce battles. But now, it's possible that things are escalating into a street-by-street, house-by-house battle for control of the district. It is this kind of intense conflict that is new to Damascus, and it could spread.

Interestingly, the Free Syrian Army brigades appear to have been avoiding this kind of battle just yet. So far, much of the fighting has been a constant ebb and flow in the suburbs, characterized by ambushes, sudden advances, and quick retreats. Though these battles have been highly effective, the FSA clearly does not have the strength to capture and hold the capital. However, the Palestinian groups on both sides have nowhere to go, and so the escalating tensions may have finally brought an Aleppo-style warfare into the capital.

It's too early to tell if the regime will be able to storm the area and pacify the streets, but this is a concerning development as this area of southern Damascus is a high-density, at risk population, and it appears to be trapped in the middle of Syria's war.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us to the afternoon.

1245 GMT: Turkish media report that Ankara has a "new formula" which envisages the departure of President Assad by March.

Under the plan, the Syrian National Coalition, established last month, would lead a transitional authority. A "more disciplined" Free Syria Army would head a "clear military hierarchy".

In September, Turkey considered a plan under which Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa would be leader during the transition.

On Sunday, al-Sharaa was quoted by a Lebanese newspaper as saying that the regime could no longer hope to defeat the insurgency and calling for discussions for a national unity government.

1015 GMT: Al Jazeera English's Zeina Khodr reports on Alawite residents leaving a village in Idlib Province, fearing the entry of insurgents into the area:

1005 GMT: Back from a media break to find the allegations of a defected colonel that President Assad personally gave orders to “oppress civilian demonstrations by all available means", including murder.

In an interview with Al Arabiya, Colonel Enad al-Abbas, the Ministry of Interior official in charge of writing reports based on data collected from police headquarters in Syria's 14 governorates, said that a report was delivered to Assad’s personal office just after midnight every day.

Abbas said that comments on the reports were sent back to the ministry around 3 a.m. with directions to “oppress the demonstrations by all means". When police chiefs from across the country asked about the practical meaning implied by the order, they were told by Minister of Interior Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, “It means by all means, including murder".

0525 GMT: The Local Coordiating Committees claim 183 people were killed on Sunday, including 60 in Damascus and its suburbs, 45 in Aleppo Province, and 32 in Hama Province.

0515 GMT: Regime aircraft have bombarded a district of Damascus for the first time in the Syrian crisis.

The warplanes intervened in the fighting in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern part of the capital. Reports, supported by video, indicated that missiles hit a mosque sheltering people who had fled violence in Damascus suburbs, killing at least eight people.

The Local Coordinating Coordinated said 15 people were killed in the camp on Sunday, while other activists claimed a toll of 25.

Earlier in the day, it was reported that Ahmed Jibril, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, had fled the camp. The pro-regime PFLP has controlled Yarmouk, but has been under increasing pressure from insurgents and a pro-opposition Palestinian brigade. Activists that there have been scores of PFLP defections amid almost two weeks of clashes.

Alex Thompson also has an interesting piece out today about what its like to cover the war in Syria:

Damascus International: your flight to Aleppo is now departing

It is several days since we attempted the dual carriageway to Damascus International Airport. And although the mortar and small arms fire along the airport road is not what it was, another shot-up vehicle lies slewed in a ditch which was not there yesterday.

In truth, it is not just fighting with arms that makes it difficult for a reporter to access the airport here, it is fighting for government permission to be allowed to film here.

This has taken several days. This morning I said to the Syrian Minister of Information Omran al Zohbi: “How come it takes a matter of hours to fix up filming with the rebels in Damascus – yet we have tried for eight days to film with the Syrian Army without success?”

“Ha! That is because the rebels are not bureaucratic!”

Free speech?

There speaks a man with at least candour and understanding of the regime’s catastrophic inability to come to terms with free and open journalism.

In his interview, the information minister would go on to say they have given access to well over 300 foreign TV crews and they can operate here freely.

I do not doubt the truth of the first part of that statement. However, the second part is a total fiction and surely the genial and urbane Mr al Zohbi, must be aware of this. More...

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