Syrian troops stormed a flashpoint suburb of Damascus on Thursday, rounding people up in house-to-house raids and clashing with army defectors, activists said, as the 10-month-old uprising inches ever closer to the capital.
Even as the fighting raged in Douma, tens of thousands of backers of president Bashar Assad poured into the streets just 10 miles away in Damascus in a show of support for his embattled regime.
Similar pro-regime rallies were held in other cities on Thursday, even as the bloodshed continued elsewhere - offering a sign of the deep divisions over the country's deadly revolt. Members of the Syrian army were reported to have defected to join the rebels at Khalidiya in Homs province
The offensive against Douma came two days after Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem said his government will continue with the "security solution" to end the crisis. It was the latest evidence that the Assad regime was rejecting pressure to stop the bloody crackdown and the Arab League was powerless to curb it.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 200 people were detained on Thursday in Douma. On Wednesday, a Red Crescent official and a priest were among the dead in Syria.
Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said the priest, Basilious Nassar, was a "supporter of the democratic uprising and a patriotic figure of the movement".
She added: "We believe the responsibility lies entirely with the regime and is one more attempt at inciting hatred and sectarian divisions. The revolution is and will remain a democratic non-sectarian cry for change in Syria."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killing of the Red Crescent official and offered condolences to the family. Attackers are said to have targeted a vehicle that Abdulrazak Jbero was riding in, which was clearly marked with the Red Crescent emblem.
The Syrian uprising began last March with largely peaceful anti-government protests, but it has grown increasingly militarised in recent months as frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces.
The government crackdown has killed more than 5,400 people since March, according to estimates from the United Nations.