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Syrian military launches offensive to regain control of Damascus suburbs; at least 23 killed
BEIRUT (AP) ' The Syrian military launched an offensive to regain control of suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus on Sunday, storming neighborhoods and clashing with groups of army defectors in fierce fighting that sent residents fleeing and killed at least 12 people, activists said.
Violence elsewhere in the country killed at least 17 more people, including six soldiers in a roadside bombing south of the capital.
But the heaviest fighting was focused in a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, where government troops reinforced by dozens of tanks and armored vehicles battled with armed defectors who have grown increasingly bold, staking out positions and setting up checkpoints in recent days.
Some of the fighting on Sunday was only two miles (four kilometers) from Damascus, in Ein Tarma, making it the closest yet to the capital as President Bashar Assad's regime pushes to uproot protesters and dissident soldiers who have joined the opposition.
"There are heavy clashes going on in all of the Damascus suburbs," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who relies on a network of activists on the ground. "Troops were able to enter some areas but are still facing stiff resistance in others."
The ten-month uprising against Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has grown increasingly militarized recently as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms against the regime.
The assault on the suburbs seemed to be a sign of the growing presence of dissident soldiers closer to Damascus, and the regime's rising concern about the situation. Although the tightly controlled capital has been relatively quiet since the uprising began, its outskirts have witnessed intense anti-regime protests and army defectors have become more visible and active in the past few months.
The military has responded with a withering assault on a string of Damascus suburbs in a bid to stamp out the resistance, leading to a spike in violence has killed nearly 100 people since Thursday.
The rising bloodshed has added urgency to new attempts by Arab and Western countries to find a resolution to the 10 months of violence, which according to the United Nations has killed at least 5,400 people as Assad seeks to crush persistent protests demanding an end to his rule.
The U.N. is holding talks on a new resolution on Syria and next week will discuss an Arab League peace plan aimed at ending the crisis. But the initiatives face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of an Arab plan that it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters in Egypt on Sunday that contacts were under way with China and Russia.
"I hope that their stand will be adjusted in line with the final drafting of the draft resolution," he told reporters at before leaving for New York with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim.
The two will seek U.N. support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plan calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.
The Arab League on Saturday halted the work of its observer mission in Syria because of the escalating violence, until the League's council can meet to decide the mission's fate. Arab foreign ministers were to meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the Syrian crisis in light of the suspension of the observers' work and Damascus' refusal to agree to the transition timetable, the League said.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he was "concerned" about the League's decision to suspend its monitoring mission and called on Assad to "immediately stop the bloodshed." He spoke at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa Sunday.
While the international community scrambles to find a resolution to the crisis, the violence on the ground in Syria has continued unabated.
On Sunday, activists said three civilians including a 16-year-old died in fierce fighting in the suburb of Kfar Batna. There was heavy shelling there and in the nearby suburbs of Saqba and Arbeen, they said.
"Troops this morning stormed Kfar Batna, Hammouriyeh and Ein Tarma," said an activist who identified himself as Mohammad Doumani, based in the Damascus suburb of Douma. "It looks like the regime has launched an operation to regain control of those areas."
Doumani said dozens of families were fleeing Ein Tarma and nearby areas for Damascus. Amateur videos posted on the Internet showed residents, including women and children, fleeing on foot carrying bags stuffed with belongings as the crackle of gunfire echoed in the background.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 23 people were killed in Syria Sunday, most of them in fighting in the Damascus suburbs and in the central city of Homs, a hotbed of anti-regime protests. The dead include 10 soldiers who were killed in an ambush in Idlib, it said.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said 29 people were killed on Sunday, including 12 who were killed in the suburbs of the capital.
Syria's state-run news agency said "terrorists" detonated a roadside bomb by remote control near a bus carrying soldiers in the Damascus suburb of Sahnaya, killing six soldiers and wounding six others. Among those killed in the attack some 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of the capital were two first lieutenants, SANA said.
In the Iraqi northern Kurdish city of Irbil, about 200 members of Syria's Kurdish parties were holding two days of meetings to explore ways of supporting efforts to topple Assad.
Abdul-Baqi Youssef, a member of the Syrian Kurdish Union Party, said representatives of 11 Kurdish parties formed the Syrian Kurdish National Council that will coordinate anti-government activities with Syria's opposition.
"This is a good start to unify the Kurds in Syria and to drive the revolution forward for the sake of getting rid of Bashar Assad," Youssef said by telephone.
While the Kurds support the broader Syrian opposition movement's efforts to overthrow the regime, they also want opposition leaders to "guarantee our national rights before the fall of the regime," Youssef said.
Kurds make up 15 percent of Syria's 23 million people and have long complained of discrimination.
Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, and Luc van Kemenade in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.