Syrian rebels battled Bashar al-Assad's forces on the edge of central Damascus on Wednesday, opposition activists said, seeking to break his grip over districts leading to the heart of the capital.
Their offensive aims to break a stalemate in the city of two million people, where artillery and air strikes have prevented opposition fighters entrenched to the east from advancing despite their capture of army fortifications, the activists said.
"We have moved the battle to Jobar," said Captain Islam Alloush of the rebel Islam Brigade, referring to a district which links rebel strongholds in the eastern suburbs with the central Abbasid Square.
"The heaviest fighting is taking place in Jobar because it is the key to the heart of Damascus."
Assad, battling to crush a 22-month-old uprising in which 60,000 people have died, has lost control of large parts of the country but his forces, backed by air power, have so far kept rebels on the fringes of the capital.
State media and pro-Assad websites said rebel fighters were pushed back from Jobar and other parts of the Ghouta area of eastern Damascus.
"Our noble army is continuing its operations against the terrorists in Irbeen, Zamalka and Harasta and Sbeineh, destroying the criminal lairs," Syrian television said.
But rebels said they had made significant gains.
"Parts of the Damascus ringroad fell to us today. The road has been effectively the last remaining barrier between the Ghouta and the city," said Abu Ghazi, a rebel commander based in the eastern suburb of Irbeen.
"I don't want to give people false hopes but I think if street fighting reaches central Damascus the regime will not be able to quell it this time," he added.
A disorganized rebel advance on the city failed last year. But this time, he said, opposition fighters had established supply lines to support their offensive.
"WE WANT TO SHAKE THE REGIME"
"There is a new strategy, brigades are united. What is happening in the field is huge but it is a preparation for bigger operations," said Abu Moaz al-Agha, a leader and spokesman of the Gathering of Ansar al-Islam which includes many Islamist brigades.
"Right now we will attack checkpoints specially in Jobar that some time ago seemed impossible to come near to. We want to shake the regime."
Authorities in Damascus closed Abbasid Square and the Fares al-Khoury thoroughfare as fighters attacked roadblocks and fortifications with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, activists said.
"The areas of Jobar, Zamalka, al-Zablatani and parts of Qaboun and the ringroad have become a battleground," activist Fida Mohammad said from Qaboun.
Assad's core forces, mostly from his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, are based in Qasioun Mountain, which is part of Damascus, and on hilltops dotted with artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers.
Estimated at 70,000 army, security and militia personnel, the core forces have a supply line to the coast that has remained open despite rebel efforts to disrupt it.
Residents reported explosions across the east and north of the capital. "The army seems to have been caught by surprise. Reports from the heart of the battle are talking about several tanks being hit and the army has been pushed to Abbasid Square," one activist said.
The rebel Liwa al-Islam unit said the operation to enter eastern parts of Damascus aimed to relieve pressure on two large southwestern suburbs that have been under army siege.
Rebels were also attacking the town of Adra, 17 km (10 miles) northeast of Damascus. Video footage purportedly showed an armored vehicle in the area being hit by a rocket. Thousands of refugees had fled to the town, which is home to Syria's largest prison.
In Jobar, mosque speakers chanted "God is Greatest" in support of opposition fighters who attacked roadblocks in the neighborhood, activists said.
They said tanks stationed on the edge of the central district of Midan, just outside the walls of Old Damascus, shelled southern districts of the city.
SUICIDE CAR BOMB
In Palmyra, 220 km (140 miles) northeast of Damascus, on the main road to the oil-producing east of the country, a suicide car bomb struck a military intelligence compound, causing dozens of casualties, opposition campaigners said.
A bomb destroyed part of the back wall of the compound near the Roman-era ruins in the city and then a suicide car bomber drove through, detonating the vehicle and destroying parts of the facility, activists in Palmyra said.
They said it was not immediately clear how many people had been killed in the blast and clashes which followed. Video footage, which could not be immediately verified, showed a large cloud of thick smoke rising in the city.
"The first car bomb struck at around six in the morning. The second one, which caused the larger explosion, broke through into the compound 10 minutes later," activist Abu al-Hassan said from the city.
He said tanks in the compound fired shells in response into an adjacent neighborhood, killing several civilians.
Roadblocks across the city also came under attack.
The state news agency said two "suicide terrorists" blew up cars packed with explosives near a garage in a residential district, killing and wounding several people. Among those killed was a woman, it said.
Street demonstrations against Assad's rule erupted in Palmyra at the beginning of the revolt almost two years ago. But the army has since tightened control of the city, which is situated near a major oil pipeline junction.
After a failed uprising in the 1980s led by the Muslim Brotherhood against the rule of Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, thousands of political prisoners were executed in a military jail in Palmyra.