DAMASCUS // Syrian troops overran a rebel town and were locked in a second day of fierce clashes around the capital yesterday, as the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, admitted for the first time that his department backed the idea of providing arms to rebel groups.
Troops retook Karnaz, a town on the strategic road linking Damascus and Aleppo, after a 16-day onslaught, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"[Rebel] fighters withdrew from Karnaz, which they seized in December last year, after heavy fighting, and regular forces regained control," he said.
Clashes and heavy shelling were reported in rebel strongholds around the capital for a second day as the army pressed a major offensive that the Observatory said had killed at least 64 people on Wednesday.
In Washington, Mr Panetta's admission of support for arming the rebels, contrary to the stated US stance of providing only humanitarian assistance, revealed a policy rift with the White House.
The departing defence secretary and Gen Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the senate armed services committee they supported a plan last year by the then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the then CIA director, David Petraeus, to provide weapons to the rebels fighting to overthrow the president, Bashar Al Assad.
Their comments came in response to a question from the Republican senator, John McCain.
He has been a leading critic of the Obama administration for failing to do more to help the Syrian rebels, who are heavily outgunned by Mr Al Assad's forces.
The Obama administration has expressed concern about the difficulty of determining which opposition groups are linked to Al Qaeda insurgents who might get US-supplied arms.
But some have urged the US to supply weapons to opposition groups to hasten Mr Al Assad's departure and prevent rebels from accepting weapons from groups linked to terrorism.
Meanwhile, yesterday's clashes inched closer to Mr Al Assad's seat of power but still focused on outlying neighbourhoods such as Qaboun, Jobar and Zamalka in the north-east and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the south.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees said five people, three of them women, were killed in Yarmouk overnight.
On Wednesday, Damascus witnessed the worst fighting since July last year, when rebels stormed several neighbourhoods and seized control of them for days until they were crushed by a government counter-offensive.
Damascus residents said yesterday was quieter, but they were still hearing sporadic explosions.
In other areas, the Observatory reported heavy clashes between troops and rebels near the northern town of Al Safira, where there have been heavy clashes recently.
Al Safira, south of the northern city of Aleppo, is home to military production facilities. The rebels have failed to advance in the area during weeks of intense clashes.
The Syrian opposition's offer of dialogue with the government to end nearly two years of fighting would be withdrawn if the regime did not release all female political prisoners, its leader said.
Moaz Al Khatib, the head of the Syrian National Coaltion, told the BBC Arabic service on Wednesday that the women must be released by Sunday.
He has claimed there are 160,000 political prisoners, but it was not clear how many of them were women.
"If the women are not released by Sunday, I consider that the regime wants to break the initiative," he said.
* Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg