Syrian troops push back in fight on Damascus edges

President Bashar Assad

Syrian demonstrators raise posters showing Syria's President Bashar Assad as they perform an oath to defend their country at Sabe Bahrat square in downtown Damascus, Syria, on Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, during a rally to support President Bashar Assad. Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters after Friday prayers at several locations around the country, while the army sent reinforcements into a southern area where military defectors recently launched deadly attacks on regime troops. ( AP Photo/ Bassem Tellawi)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces heavily shelled the restive city of Homs on Monday and troops pushed back dissident troops from some suburbs on the outskirts of Damascus in an offensive trying to regain control of the capital's eastern doorstep, activists said.

President Bashar Assad's regime is intensifying its assault aimed at crushing army defectors and protesters, even as the West tries to overcome Russian opposition and win a new U.N. resolution demanding a halt to Syria's crackdown on the 10-month-old uprising. Activists reported at least 28 civilians killed on Monday.

With talks on the resolution due to begin Tuesday, a French official said at least 10 members of the Security Council backed the measure, which includes a U.N. demand that Assad carry out an Arab League peace plan. The plan requires Assad to hand his powers over to his vice president and allow the creation of a unity government within two months. Damascus has rejected the proposal.

A text needs support from nine nations on the 15-member U.N. Security Council to go to a vote. The French official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with departmental rules.

The British and French foreign ministers were heading to New York to push for backing of the measure in Tuesday's U.N. talks.

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron's office urged Moscow to reconsider its opposition to the measure.

"Russia can no longer explain blocking the U.N. and providing cover for the regime's brutal repression," a spokeswoman for Cameron said, on customary condition of anonymity in line with policy.

Russia insists it won't support any resolution it believes could open the door to an eventual foreign military intervention in Syria, the way an Arab-backed U.N. resolution paved the way for NATO airstrikes in Libya. Instead, the Kremlin said Monday it was trying to put together negotiations in Moscow between Damascus and the opposition.

It said Assad's government has agreed to participate. The opposition has in the past rejected any negotiations unless violence stops, and there was no immediate word whether any of the multiple groups that make up the anti-Assad camp would attend.

The United Nations estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria's crackdown since the uprising against Assad's rule began in March. The bloodshed has continued since — with more than 190 killed in the past five days — and the U.N. says it has been unable to update the figure.

Regime forces on Monday heavily shelled the central city of Homs, which has been one of the cities at the forefront of the uprising, activists said. Heavy machine gun fire hit the city's restive Baba Amr district.

The Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported that 14 were killed in the city on Monday. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the number at 15. Both also reported the discovery of a family of six — a couple and their four children — who had been killed by gunfire several days earlier in the city's Karm el-Zeitoun district.

The past three days, pro-Assad forces have been fighting to take back a string of suburbs on the eastern approach to Damascus where army defectors who joined the opposition had seized control.

Government troops managed on Sunday evening to take control of two of the districts closest to Damascus, Ein Tarma and Kfar Batna, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based head of the Observatory.

On Monday, the regime forces were trying to take the next suburbs farther out, with heavy fighting in the districts of Saqba and Arbeen, he said.

At least five civilians were killed in the fighting near Damascus, the Observatory and LCC said. The Observatory also reported 10 army defectors and eight regime troops or security forces killed around the country.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities keep tight control on the media and have banned many foreign journalists from entering the country.

The wide-scale offensive near the capital suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet while most other Syrian cities have slipped into chaos since the uprising began in March.

The violence has gradually approached the capital. In the past two weeks, army dissidents have become more visible, seizing several suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus and setting up checkpoints where masked men wearing military attire and wielding assault rifles stop motorists and protect anti-regime protests.

Their presence so close to the capital is astonishing in tightly controlled Syria and suggests the Assad regime may either be losing control or setting up a trap for the fighters before going on the offensive.

State media reported that an "armed terrorist group" blew up a gas pipeline at dawn Monday. The pipeline carries gas from the central province of Homs to an area near the border with Lebanon. SANA news agency reported that the blast happened in Tal Hosh, which is about five miles (eight kilometers) from Talkalakh, along the border with Lebanon.

Further details were not immediately available.

There have been several pipeline attacks since the Syrian uprising began, but it is not clear who is behind them.

Assad's regime has blamed "terrorists" for driving the country's uprising, not protesters seeking democratic change.

Associated Press
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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