At least two rocket-propelled grenades hit a ruling Baath Party building in Damascus on Sunday, residents said, in the first insurgent attack reported inside the Syrian capital since an eight-month uprising began against President Bashar al-Assad.
The attack occurred hours after an Arab League deadline for Syria to end its crackdown against protesters passed with no sign of violence abating, and Assad remained defiant in the face of growing international isolation.
Security police blocked off the square where the Baath's Damascus branch is located. But I saw smoke rising from the building and fire trucks around it, said one witness, who declined to be named.
The attack was just before dawn and the building was mostly empty. It seems to have been intended as a message to the regime, said the witness.
The Syrian Free Army, consisting of army defectors and based in neighboring Turkey, claimed responsibility for the attack.
No independent verification of the claim was immediately available. The authorities have barred most independent journalists from entering the country.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 people were killed on Saturday by government forces. On Friday, dozens were reported killed in clashes.
Assad was quoted on Saturday as saying he would press on with the crackdown against protesters despite increased international pressure to end it.
The conflict will continue, and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue, he told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper. However, I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it.
In video footage on the newspaper's Web site, Assad said there would be elections in February or March when Syrians would vote for a parliament to create a new constitution and that would include provision for a presidential ballot
That constitution will set the basis of how to elect a president, if they need a president or don't need him, he said.
They have the elections, they can participate in it. The ballot boxes will decide who should be president.
The Arab League had set a Saturday deadline for Syria to comply with a peace plan that would entail a military pullout from around restive areas, and threatened sanctions if Assad failed to end the violence.
The league, a group of Arab states, has already suspended Syria's membership.
Non-Arab Turkey, once an ally of Assad's, is also taking an increasingly tough attitude toward Damascus.
Turkish newspapers said on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighboring Syria if the bloodshed worsened.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Ralph Gowling)