Assad poster protest
A member of the Syrian community steps on a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a protest Thursday near the Russian embassy in Bucharest. REUTERS

In an echo from the final weeks of Saddam Hussein's reign in Iraq in 2003, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has reportedly retreated to where he has his staunchest supporters: his tribal homeland in Latakia, a port city 220 miles north of the capital.

Latakia province is home to many of the country's minority Alawite Shiites, of which the ruling Assads are members, and it is a safer refuge for the president than the capital as rebels advance on Damascus.

The news comes a day after a massive explosion in the capital took out Syrian Defense Minister General Daoud Rajha and Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

The president may have relocated there days ago in anticipation of escalating violence, a Syrian opposition official told Reuters. The president's whereabouts have not been confirmed.

Taking Damascus will be a moral blow to Assad's regime, a Free Syrian Army brigade commander told NBC news.

Fighting in the city escalated overnight, spurring U.N. officials and Washington to warn that the situation was quickly deteriorating for the country and Damascus' 1.7 million residents. At least 1,000 more rebel fighters entered the city overnight, and clashes with government loyalists were within sight of the presidential palace.

Witnesses saw gunships hovering over two of the city's districts, as firefights and explosions broke out in parts of the city. One resident told NBC she saw neighbors arming themselves with whatever they had, including guns and even kitchen knives.

It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the commander of the United Nations monitoring mission in Syria told reporters in Damascus, according to the New York Times.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said from a visit in Afghanistan Thursday that Britain wants both sides to cool their guns, for Assad to leave the country, and for both sides to work toward building a new government. He also called on Russia to stop opposing sanctions that the Western powers would like to see implemented.

I have a very clear message for president Assad. It is time for him to go. It is time for transition in the regime. If there isn't transition it's quite clear there's going to be civil war, Cameron said, according to WalesOnline. My message to (Russian) president (Vladimir) Putin is, it's time for the UN Security Council to pass clear and tough messages about sanctions.

Assad's retreat to his tribal heartland is similar to Saddam's movements during his final weeks in power, when he fled to Tikrit, where he still had compatriots willing to hide him. He was eventually captured at a farmhouse by U.S. forces outside of Tikrit, where he was hiding in a hole in the ground.