BEIRUT // The Syrian army stormed suburbs around Damascus yesterday in a major offensive to wrest back control of areas held by rebel forces.
At least 19 people were killed in fierce fighting between soldiers and army defectors yesterday, opposition activists said.
About 2,000 Syrian soldiers backed by tanks and armoured vehicles were deployed around the capital's eastern suburbs, joining other troops surrounding the districts on the outskirts of Damascus seized by rebel forces last week.
The army pushed deep into the neighbourhood of Kfar Batna, where activists said four tanks were in the central square. "It's urban war. There are bodies in the street," one activist said.
A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army said the fighting came a day after a large wave of defections from the Syrian military.
In a "steady progression of fighting towards the capital," deserters were clashing with army regulars only eight kilometres from Damascus, the rebel spokesman Maher Nueimi said.
With the insurgency threatening the heart of the Al Assad regime, an activist who identified himself as Mohammad Doumani said the Syrian military had stormed the neighbourhoods of Hammouriyeh and Ein Tarma, as well as Kfar Batna.
"It looks like the regime has launched an operation to regain control of those areas," Mr Doumani said.
Rankous, another area just 30 kilometres from Damascus, was also under siege, with government troops trying to rid the area of members of the rebel army, according to activists.
Meanwhile, the Arab League secretary general, Nabil El Arabi, was on his way to New York yesterday, in a bid to win United Nations support for the latest Arab plan to end the crisis.
Mr El Arabi, who will be joined in New York by Qatar's prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, head of the league's Syria task-force, is due to brief the Security Council tomorrow. Arab foreign ministers are next due to discuss Syria on February 5.
Last week the 22-member organisation called for Bashar Al Assad to step down as president and transfer power to his deputy. The plan, which was immediately rejected by Damascus, also called for the formation of a national unity government.
Some western governments support the Arab initiative, but China and Russia, both permanent members of the council with veto power, are reluctant to step up pressure on the Al Assad regime. Speaking before leaving Cairo, Mr El Arabi said that "contacts" were being made with China and Russia on the Arab proposal.
On Saturday, the league suspended its observer mission to Syria, in the wake of the mounting violence. Observes were sent to Syria at the end of last year to monitor the government’s compliance with an earlier Arab peace plan that failed to bring about an end to the bloodshed.
The Arab monitors are understood to have gathered in Damascus, pending a final decision on their status.
Syria has described the suspension of the mission as a move to influence the Security Council and push for foreign intervention in the crisis.
Following the announcement, France – a permanent member of the Security Council that has been calling for tougher action against the Syrian regime – condemned the escalating violence that led to the suspension of the Arab League mission.
“Dozens of Syrian civilians have been killed in the past days by the savage repression taken by the Syrian regime. Those responsible for these barbarous acts must answer to their crimes,” the French foreign ministry said.
Yesterday, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union, an opposition group, said about 1,151 people had been killed between the start of the Arab League observer trip on December 26 and Saturday, when the mission was suspended. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of Syrian opposition activists, said at least 24 people were killed yesterday. Neither figure can be verified.
This month the UN estimated the death toll at more than 5,400 since the uprising began in March last year.
The Syrian government has said the terrorist groups it blames for the crisis have killed more than 2,000 of its security personnel in the past 10 months. Yesterday, the Syrian state news agency Sana reported that funerals were held for 23 members of the security forces. The report said the men were killed by “armed terrorist groups” while on duty in Homs, Daraa and outside Damascus.
* With additional reporting by Reuters, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse