BEIRUT (AP) - A Syrian military helicopter crashed in a ball of fire Monday after apparently being hit during clashes between government forces and rebels in the capital Damascus, activists said, in a sign of the fighters' growing abilities as they struggle to topple President Bashar Assad's regime.
A video posted on the Internet showed the chopper engulfed in flames and spinning out of control shortly before it hit the ground amid bursts of gunfire near a mosque. Rebels shout "Allahu Akbar!" or God is great, as the helicopter went down. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure on the already isolated Assad regime, calling on the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government and saying France would recognize it once it was formed.
The announcement from Hollande - believed to be the first of its kind -also appeared to be an attempt to jolt Syria's deeply fragmented opposition into unity. But Syria's fractured opposition has been rife with infighting since the anti-Assad revolt broke out in March 2011, and it is far from clear whether it could cobble together a provisional administration anytime soon.
"France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government - inclusive and representative - that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria," Hollande said in a speech to France's ambassadors. "France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed."
Syria's lightly armed rebels have grown bolder and their tactics more sophisticated in recent months. There have been claims of fighters shooting down helicopter gunships in the past, though the government has never confirmed it.
With its forces stretched thin by fighting on multiple fronts, Assad's regime has increasingly turned to air power, unleashing both helicopters and fighter jets on the rebels.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which along with other activists reported the chopper crash, said there was intense fighting between troops backed by helicopter gunships and rebels in the western Damascus neighborhood of Jobar.
Syria's state-run news agency confirmed the crash in the district of al-Qaboun, which is near Jobar and a hotbed of Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to topple Assad. SANA gave no details about the cause of the crash in its one-line report, perhaps an implicit acknowledgement that it had been brought down by the rebels.
The helicopter in the grainy video appeared to be a Russian-built Mi-8, or its similar but more powerful variant, the Mi-17. The easy-to-maintain, twin-turbine choppers are the most widely produced and exported helicopters in the world.
The Mi-8, which can carry 24 troops, has been in Syrian air force service since the 1970s.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said more than 300 people were killed in fighting in the Damascus suburbs over the weekend, including 150 in one location.
She cited reports from human rights activists that some were killed point-blank "in the most brutal way at the hands of the regime" in Daraya. But she added that the U.S. reporting on the toll was also based on information from its own contacts inside Syria.
Despite the escalating violence, Nuland did not endorse France's call for the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government, saying "it's a matter for them (Syrians) to decide if and when they may be prepared to start naming folks."
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate, independent investigation into the Daraya killings. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky also said the killings underscore the urgent need to move "from bloodshed to political dialogue" and the need to hold those responsible for "atrocities" accountable.