Fierce clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors spread to new areas Monday after a major battle in the south raised new fears the 9-month-old conflict was spiraling toward civil war, activists said.
The uprising has grown increasingly violent in recent months as defecting soldiers fight back against the army and once-peaceful protesters take up arms to protect themselves against the military assault.
The UN says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March. The revolt has raised concerns of a regional conflagration, given Syria's strategic role in the Middle East with alliances in Iran and with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says new clashes between soldiers and defectors were reported Monday in the northwestern region of Idlib, and that fighting continued for a second day in the southern province of Daraa.
Also Monday, Syria's state media reported that voting started in scheduled municipal elections, but witnesses say turnout was low.
The opposition does not consider the vote a legitimate concession by the regime because it coincides with the deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Since the uprising began, Assad has made several gestures of reform. But after nine months, the opposition is demanding nothing less than the downfall of the regime.
It is almost impossible to verify events in Syria, because the regime has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely.
Accounts from activists and witnesses, along with amateur videos posted online, provide key channels of information.
On Sunday, the army defectors set several military vehicles ablaze in a prolonged battle in Daraa province of Syria in a sign of continous stir.