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[Dehai-WN] (Reuters): Syrian forces battle to retake Damascus suburbs

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Sun, 29 Jan 2012 14:38:42 +0100

Syrian forces battle to retake Damascus suburbs

Sun Jan 29, 2012 10:50am GMT

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 armoured personnel carriers, along with
at least 50 tanks and armoured 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

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.


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

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 neighbourhood 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)

C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved


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