Syria fights rebels near Damascus

HARASTA, Syria, Jan 26, (Agencies): Syrian troops battled rebels in a town just north of Damascus on Thursday and a provincial governor spoke of negotiating local ceasefires as a 10-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad crept close to the capital.
A Syrian officer told Reuters, clashes had been under way in Douma since the morning. Security forces were searching houses for arms and wanted suspects. Reporters were shown home-made grenades among other seized weapons.
The officer was speaking in the tense suburb of Harasta nearby, where troops were deployed in strength.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces had detained 200 people in Douma, a hotbed of protests and armed rebellion against Assad.
Gunfire was close enough to be heard from central Damascus during the night.
“Many of them (in the opposition) have been misled. They will eventually come back to the right way,” Hussein Makhlouf, governor of Damascus countryside, told Arab League monitors before they headed for some of the capital’s troubled suburbs.
“We have started a dialogue with them, including some armed groups that are controlling positions there,” Makhlouf said.
He told the observers that the authorities were using “the same approach as in Zabadani, so the same scenario will happen.”
Syrian security forces killed 34 civilians, including 10 children, in clashes across the country on Thursday, a rights group said.
“The toll for the day has risen to 34 civilians killed by the security forces in several regions of Syria, mostly in Homs,” said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Separately, seven deserters and eight regular soldiers died in clashes, according to the rights group, among them a colonel killed in Homs, a protest hub in central Syria.
The Observatory said the army launched an offensive on Thursday evening in the Karm al-Zeitoun district of Homs, killing 26 civilians, including nine children, and wounding dozens.
The UN said it cannot keep track of the death toll in Syria’s months-long unrest that has already cost more than 5,400 lives, as government forces targeted the protest hub of Hama with a major assault.
The admission came as European and Arab governments worked on a UN Security Council resolution condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s government for its persistent deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
The authorities organised loyalist rallies in a string of major cities as they reacted angrily to mounting criticism from Arab governments that have taken the lead role in diplomatic efforts to end the 10-month bloodshed.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay gave a toll of more than 5,000 dead when she spoke to the Security Council in early December, but has not updated it.
Under secretary general B. Lynn Pascoe told the council on January 10 that at least 400 people had been killed since a widely criticised Arab observer mission deployed in Syria on Dec 26.
The US State Department’s top human rights official said Thursday that Washington was keen to work with the Arab League to end bloodshed in Syria and added that a new Arab initiative could go before the UN Security Council soon.
The Arab League agreed Sunday a new proposal that envisages Syrian President Bashar al-Assad handing power to a deputy and setting up a unity government as a prelude to early parliamentary and presidential elections.
“We are very mindful and appreciative of the attention that the Syria issue has gotten from the Arab League in recent weeks,” Michael Posner told reporters in Cairo.
“We are desirous of working in partnership with them and there is certainly a hope and expectation that we can proceed to the Security Council soon for the issue to be raised.”
Russia said on Thursday it would continue to promote its own draft resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council, staking out a tough position ahead of talks on a Western-Arab draft that calls for President Bashar al-Assad to cede power.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich ruled out neither a compromise on the rival Security Council resolution aimed to end almost a year of bloodshed in Syria nor a veto from Russia, which has refused to join calls for Assad’s resignation.
His remarks indicated Russia is wary of the Western-backed draft, which supports an Arab League plan for a political transition in which Assad would cede power.

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