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Syrian forces open new front against army defectors in mountain valley outside Damascus
BEIRUT (AP) ' Heavy gunfire and shelling rattled towns in a mountain valley outside Damascus on Wednesday, as Syrian troops opened a new front in their campaign to crush rebels who have taken control of areas around the capital.
The assault in the mountains overlooking Damascus from the northwest came a day after regime troops largely succeeded in retaking suburbs on the eastern side of the city in an offensive over the past week.
With activists reporting more than 30 killed in violence Wednesday, U.N. ambassadors held a second day of talks in a closed session at the Security Council, trying to win the agreement of Syria's ally Russia to a draft resolution calling for President Bashar Assad to surrender power.
Moscow says it would veto the draft because it believes it opens the way for eventual international military action. Western and Arab diplomats at a high-level Council session Monday that grouped U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British and French foreign ministers insisted no such intervention was in the works.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hoped the Council will respond with a "unified voice," his spokesman Martin Nesirky said,
"He's concerned that as time passes, more people are being killed," Nesirky said.
The United Nations estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people had been killed since March in the Assad regime's crackdown on the uprising. It has been unable to update its count since, and the bloodshed has continued. More than 300 were killed the past week alone.
The escalation in fighting appears to reflect the regime's growing concern over the threat posed by army defectors who have sided with protesters demanding Assad's ouster.
Defectors have appeared in towns and cities around the country, protecting protests, defending neighborhoods from regime assault and launching attacks on military forces and infrastructure.
In recent weeks, the rebels appeared in greater numbers in the towns and suburbs surrounding Damascus, which has been tightly controlled by the regime throughout the country's turmoil.
On Wednesday, regime forces pushed their way up Wadi Barada, a valley in the mountains a few miles (kilometers) northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border. Battles with rebels appeared heavy. The state news agency reported a brigadier general and two other high-ranking officers in the government forces were killed, and activists said between six and 14 army defectors died.
The valley leads to the mountain resort town of Zabadani, an opposition stronghold that has been under the control of rebel soldiers and protesters for several weeks.
At least 24 civilians were killed as government forces battered Deir Qanoun, Ein al-Fija and other towns in the valley, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the toll at 36.
The figures could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities keep tight control on the media and have banned many foreign journalists from entering the country.
At the same time, troops were mopping up in the suburbs on the agricultural plains east of Damascus, where they largely put down rebel forces in three days of heavy fighting.
Regime forces raided homes in several suburbs, arresting activists and dissidents and killing at least two young men. A 3-year-old girl was shot dead in the suburb of Arbeen as troops stormed neighborhoods, the Observatory said.
Large demonstrations were held in nearby areas in support of the besieged suburbs, activists said. In Midan, one of the few neighborhoods inside Damascus that has seen protests, amateur video posted online by activists showed young men marching, raising signs saying, "Patience, Ghouta, we will meet in Heaven," referring to one of the suburbs.
In the central city of Homs, one of the main flashpoints of the uprising and a scene of daily fighting, government troops shelled buildings and fought defectors in several neighborhoods. At least eight residents were killed, the Observatory said.
In the southern region of Daraa, a large force of armored vehicles and troops stormed into the town of Khirbet Ghazali, opening fire and raiding homes, the Observatory and LCC reported.
Also Wednesday, gunmen kidnapped 11 Iranian pilgrims driving from the Turkish border to Damascus to visit Shiite shrines, a diplomat in the Syrian capital said. The gunmen ambushed the pilgrims' bus, separated women, children and elderly men and abducted the 11 young men, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details.
It was the second abduction of Iranians on the same route in a week, after the kidnapping of 11 pilgrims on Friday. Last month, seven Iranian engineers building a power plant in central Syria were kidnapped. They have not yet been released.
The Free Syrian Army, which groups army defectors, claimed responsibility for the abduction of the seven, accusing them of taking part in the suppression of the Syrian people. Iran is Assad's closest ally.
The intensifying violence spurred pressure on Russia to allow U.N. action.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International sharply criticized Russia for what it called its "unconscionable" obstruction of U.N. efforts to help end the bloodshed in Syria.
"Russia bears a heavy responsibility for allowing the brutal crackdown on legitimate dissent in Syria to continue unchecked," Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International's U.N. representative, said Wednesday.
Russia has stood firmly by Assad throughout the nearly 11-month uprising. In October, Moscow and China cast a double veto on the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria's crackdown. Russia has shown little sign of budging in its rejection of the new measure.
The latest resolution would demand Assad carry out an Arab League peace plan under which he would hand his powers over to the vice president and allow formation of a unity government to pave the way for elections.
Arab officials joined Western countries in trying to persuade Russia to back the measure.
Deputy Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed bin Helli said Wednesday the League sought the U.N. resolution to back its peace plan and boost an Arab solution for the crisis, not to bring in international military action.
The League "is still committed ... to solving this crisis in the Arab framework, away from any outside intervention," he said during a visit to Baghdad.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.