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Syria army steps up operations

03 October 2012, 09:31

Damascus - Syria's army rained shells on rebel bastions in and around Damascus on Tuesday and sent extra troops to second city Aleppo, as a watchdog said the death toll from 18 months of violence now topped 31 000.

The fresh offensive came hours after UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Damascus to show compassion to its people and the UN's Syria envoy prepared to return to the region to try to revive mediation efforts.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem insisted on Monday that a political solution was still possible if the West and Gulf states halted support for the rebels.

A bombardment by the army of the rebel-held Harasta district in the eastern suburbs of the capital killed at least 11 people, two of them women, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

At least five civilians were killed in shelling in the city of Douma, northeast of Damascus, the Britain-based watchdog said.

The army also bombarded a string of other towns outside Damascus, the Observatory said.

Rebels pushed to outskirts

Activist network the Local Co-ordination Committees said more than 100 shells fell on Zabadani. Once a resort destination known for its mild weather and scenic views, it has been devastated by the civil war ravaging Syria.

The official daily Al-Baath said on Tuesday government forces had "destroyed many weapons caches and seized large quantities of ammunition and equipment... which indicates that the end of security operations throughout Damascus province is approaching".

On 18 July, rebels carried out a massive bombing on a complex in Damascus, killing four security chiefs, including Assad's brother-in-law and the defence minister.

Regime forces have since pushed the rebels to the outskirts of the capital. But they have lost control of several border crossings and are battling to retake Syria's second city of Aleppo, which has been the focal point of the conflict since mid-July.

Several districts of Aleppo were bombed on Tuesday, the Observatory said, a day after 22 civilians died in the violence ravaging the city of 1.7 million people.

Pro-regime daily Al-Watan said on Tuesday that extra troops were being sent to Aleppo.

Hundreds of shops destroyed

"New reinforcements have arrived to support the army... and the armed men [rebels] are now fatigued and have begun to flee to their villages and towns in the province of Aleppo and elsewhere," it said.

Fighting at the weekend rocked the city's centuries-old Unesco-listed souk and sparked a fire that damaged hundreds of shops.

Fighting also raged on Tuesday in the southern province of Daraa, the Observatory said. Nine rebels were killed in an explosion at dawn near the Jordanian border. A pregnant woman was among nine people killed in shelling and clashes in a camp for displaced people.

And Turkish troops fired across the Syrian border, killing a member of a Kurdish militia and wounding two others in the first such fatal shooting at the Turkish frontier, the Observatory said.

Nationwide, at least 104 people were killed in violence on Tuesday - 57 civilians, 26 soldiers and 21 rebels, the Observatory said.

At least, 31 022 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule erupted in March last year, it added.

Assad 'open to reforms'

UN chief Ban, speaking after a meeting with Syria's Muallem at UN headquarters in New York, said it was time for Damascus to lower the scale of its offensive against the insurgency.

"He stressed that it was the Syrian people who were being killed every day and appealed to the government of Syria to show compassion to its own people," a spokesperson said.

Muallem meanwhile told the UN General Assembly that France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States "clearly induce and support terrorism in Syria with money, weapons and foreign fighters".

Assad was open to reforms if the violence stopped, the foreign minister said. "We still believe in a political solution as an essential way out of the crisis."

UN members should press for an end to the "arming, financing, harbouring and training of terrorist groups", he said.

But Arab and Western governments have in turn accused Damascus ally Iran of arming the regime.

300 000 refugees

The UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is due back in the region this week to try to revive talks aimed at ending the bloodshed, officials said.

Jan Eliasson, deputy to the UN chief, said he did not know if Brahimi would be able to enter Syria, but hoped to persuade the Assad regime to "go in the direction of a reduction of violence".

In Lebanon Hezbollah reported that one of its senior commanders had been buried after having been killed "while performing his jihadist duties".

A Syrian rebel commander in the central province of Homs who identified himself only as Abu Moayed said the commander and two of his escorts had been killed by a home-made landmine near Qusayr," a rebel-held, besieged town in the province.

Damascus ally Hezbollah is one of Lebanon's main political parties and the country's most powerful military force.

The UN refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries has more than tripled since June to over 300 000, and by the end of the year that number is expected to more than double again.



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