Syrian forces battle to retake Damascus suburbs

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 29, 2012 5:34 AM
Syrian forces battle to retake Damascus suburbs

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) - Thousands of Syrian soldiers moved into the suburbs of Damascus that have fallen under rebel control on Sunday, killing five civilians, activists said, a day after the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria because of mounting violence.

Around 2,000 soldiers in buses and armored personnel carriers, along with at least 50 tanks and armored vehicles, moved at dawn into the eastern Ghouta area on the edge of Damascus to reinforce troops surrounding the suburbs of Saqba, Hammouriya and Kfar Batna, activists said.

The army pushed into the heart of Kfar Batna and four tanks were in its central square, they said.

"Mosques that have turned into field hospitals are requesting blood. They cut off the electricity. Petrol stations are empty and the army is preventing people from leaving to get fuel for generators or heating," said Raid, an activist in Saqba who spoke briefly by satellite phone.

The deaths brought to 17 the number of people killed in the suburbs since Saturday when the army launched an offensive against rebels who seized them last week, activists and residents said.

The Arab League suspended the work of its monitors on Saturday after calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby left for New York on Sunday where he will brief representatives of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to seek support for an Arab peace plan that calls on Assad to step aside after 10 months of protests.

He will be joined by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country heads the league's committee charged with overseeing Syria.

"Given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence ... it has been decided to immediately stop the work of the Arab League's mission to Syria..." Elaraby said on Saturday.

A Syrian government official was quoted by state media as saying Syria was surprised by the decision to suspend operations, which would "put pressure on (Security Council) deliberations with the aim of calling for foreign intervention and encouraging armed groups to increase violence."

Assad blames the violence on foreign-backed militants.

The state news agency SANA said funerals were held on Saturday for 28 members of the army and security forces, killed by "armed terrorist groups" in Homs, Hama Deraa, Deir al-Zor and Damascus province.

Faced with mass demonstrations against his rule, Assad launched a military crackdown to try to subdue the protests. Growing numbers of army deserters and gunmen have joined the demonstrators, increasing instability in the country of 23 million people at the heart of the Middle East.

The insurgency has been gradually approaching the capital, whose suburbs, a series of mainly conservative Sunni Muslim towns bordering old gardens and farmland, known as the al-Ghouta, are home to the bulk of Damascus's population.

They have seen large demonstrations demanding the removal of Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated the mostly Sunni Muslim country for the last five decades.

TOWN BESIEGED

In the mountain town of Rankous, 30 km (20 miles) north of Damascus near the Lebanese border, Assad's forces have killed at least 33 people in recent days in an attack to dislodge army defectors and insurgents, activists and residents said on Sunday.

Rankous, a town of 25,000 people, has been under tank fire since Wednesday, when it was besieged by several thousand troops, they said.

Arab League foreign ministers are expected to discuss early next month the possibility of withdrawing monitors completely, a League official said.

France which has been leading calls for stronger international action on Syria, said the Arab League decision highlighted the need to act.

"France vigorously condemns the dramatic escalation of violence in Syria, which has led the Arab League to suspend its observers' mission in Syria," the Foreign Ministry said.

"Dozens of Syrian civilians have been killed in the past days by the savage repression taken by the Syrian regime ... Those responsible for these barbarous acts must answer to their crimes," it said.

The Arab League mission was sent in at the end of last year to observe Syria's implementation of a peace plan, which failed to end the fighting. Gulf states withdrew monitors last week, saying the team could not stop the violence.

In the three rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, activists said they believed the army was trying to prevent insurgents from building a stronghold close to the centre of government.

Elsewhere, activists said they were recovering bodies from the killings of Sunni Muslims in a neighborhood of the flashpoint city Homs, which they blamed on pro-Assad militiamen.

The United Nations said in December more than 5,000 people had been killed in the wave of protests. Syria says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed by militants.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed. Britain and France said they hoped to put it to a vote next week.

Russia joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October, and has said it wants a Syrian-led political process, not "an Arab League-imposed outcome" or Libyan-style "regime change."

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Janet Lawrence)