DAMASCUS: Fierce clashes approached the capital on Sunday as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s opponents sought to crank up the pressure for UN action after the Arab League withdrew its observers.
Regime forces fired heavy artillery and mortar rounds against the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Saaba, Irbin and Hamuriyeh and were locked in close battle with rebel fighters emboldened by a fresh wave of desertions, activists said.
"The more the regime uses the army, the more soldiers defect," Ahmed al-Khatib, a local rebel council member on the Damascus outskirts, told AFP.
A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, which boasts 40,000 men and whose leadership is in Turkey, said that the fighting came a day after "a large wave of defections," with 50 officers and soldiers turning their back on Assad.
In a "steady progression of fighting towards the capital," spokesman Maher Nueimi said deserters were clashing with army regulars only eight kilometers from Damascus.
The regime, in turn, has launched "an unprecedented offensive in the past 24 hours, using heavy artillery" against villages in Damascus and Hama province of central Syria, Nueimi said.
Other rebel spokesmen reported heavy fighting in Rankus, 45 kilometers from Damascus, and of heightened tension in Hama, further to the north.
Rankus was "besieged for the past five days and is being randomly shelled since dawn by tanks and artillery rounds," rebel Abu Ali Al-Rankusi told AFP by telephone.
In Hama, pro-regime snipers were deployed on the rooftops, according to activists, with security forces leaving "bodies of dead people with their hands tied behind their backs" on the streets across several neighborhoods.
Earlier on Sunday activists and state media reported the deaths of 16 soldiers in two separate attacks as well as of five civilians and a deserter.
The latest toll adds to an AFP tally of at least 232 people — among them 147 civilians — killed since Tuesday, compiled from reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and state media.
The Observatory reported 10 members of the military killed when their convoy was attacked in Jebel Al-Zuwiya in the northwest, and the official SANA news agency said "an armed terrorist group" killed six others near Damascus.
The watchdog also reported four civilians and a deserter killed as soldiers and mutineers clashed in the Ghuta area near the capital. It said another civilian was killed in Homs, central Syria.
That adds to the figure of more than 5,400 given by the United Nations last month since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.
It was this latest surge in violence that pushed the Arab League to suspend its mission to Syria in a surprise move on Saturday.
Arab foreign ministers are to meet in Cairo on February 5 to review the suspension, an Arab League official said.
League chief Nabil Al-Arabi, departing Cairo for the United Nations, said the decision was taken after Damascus "chose the option of escalation," but Moscow expressed surprise at the move.
"We would like to know why they are treating such a useful instrument in this way," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Brunei, cited by Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency.
The 165 observers deployed a month ago after Damascus agreed to the Arab League plan foreseeing a halt to the violence, prisoners freed, tanks withdrawn from built-up areas and free movement of observers and foreign media.
Arabi said on Sunday he hopes Moscow and Beijing will allow the UN Security Council to issue a resolution backing a League plan to end the crisis.
"I hope these two countries will alter their position concerning the draft UN Security Council resolution which would adopt the Arab plan," he said, according to Egypt’s official MENA news agency.
The League plan looks to a halt in the violence and Assad transferring power to his deputy ahead of negotiations — a formula flatly rejected by Damascus.
Moscow opposes the draft UN resolution, and it has proposed its own draft assigning equal blame for the violence on both Assad and the opposition, an option dismissed by the West.
Russia has close trade ties with its Soviet-era ally, signing a new warplane delivery contract with Damascus this month, and it leases a Syrian port on the Mediterranean for its navy.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that Assad must end the killings.
"First and foremost, he must stop immediately the bloodshed," Ban told reporters. "The Syrian leadership should take a decisive action at this time to stop this violence. All the violence must stop."
But Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Al-Shaar said the authorities were determined to "cleanse" the country and restore order.
"The security forces are determined to carry on the struggle to cleanse Syria of renegades and outlaws… to restore safety and security," SANA quoted Shaar as saying.