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Fighting in Syria erupts near capital as toll rises

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, Syrian troops stormed rebellious areas near the capital of Damascus on Sunday, shelling neighborhoods that have fallen under the control of army dissidents and clashing with fighters. At least 62 people were killed in violence nationwide, activists and residents said.

The offensive suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet while most other cities descended into chaos after the uprising began in March.

The rising bloodshed added urgency to Arab and Western diplomatic efforts to end the 10-month conflict.

The violence has gradually approached the capital. In the past two weeks, army dissidents have become more visible, seizing several suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus and setting up checkpoints where masked men wearing military attire and wielding assault rifles stop motorists and protect antiregime protests.

Residents of Damascus reported hearing clashes in the nearby suburbs, particularly at night, shattering the city's calm.

"The current battles taking place in and around Damascus may not yet lead to the unraveling of the regime, but the illusion of normalcy that the Assads have sought hard to maintain in the capital since the beginning of the revolution has surely unraveled," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based Syrian dissident.

"Once illusions unravel, reality soon follows," he wrote in his blog Sunday.

Soldiers riding about 50 tanks and dozens of armored vehicles stormed a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus known as al-Ghouta. Some of the fighting was less than 3 miles from Damascus, in Ein Tarma, making it the closest yet to the capital.

"There are heavy clashes going on in all of the Damascus suburbs," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who relies on a network of activists on the ground.

The uprising against President Bashar Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has grown militarized as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms.

In a bid to stamp out resistance in the capital's outskirts, the military has responded with a withering assault on a string of suburbs, leading to a spike in violence that has killed at least 150 people since Thursday.

The Syrian Observatory said at least 27 civilians were killed Sunday in Syria, most of them in fighting in the Damascus suburbs and in the central city of Homs. Twenty-six soldiers and nine defectors were also killed, it said. The soldiers were killed in ambushes that targeted military vehicles near the capital and in the northern province of Idlib.

The United Nations is holding talks on a new resolution on Syria and will discuss an Arab League peace plan aimed at ending the crisis. But the initiatives face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of an Arab plan that it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters Sunday in Egypt that contacts were under way with China and Russia. "I hope that their stand will be adjusted in line with the final drafting of the draft resolution," he said.

League nations have been pushing the Security Council to endorse their plan for a transition in Syria that calls for Assad to hand over power to his deputy, and the formation of a unity government in advance of elections.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated Sunday that his country would oppose the plan, saying the insistence that Assad give up power was "absolutely unforgiveable."

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Fighting in Syria erupts near capital as toll rises 01/29/12 [Last modified: Sunday, January 29, 2012 11:14pm]

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