New Syrian violence reported on Damascus' doorstep

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REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Syrian tanks and troop reinforcements moved Sunday to reclaim government control of rebellious suburbs outside Damascus, opposition groups reported, bringing the armed conflict that has battered the nation for months to the doorsteps of the nation's capital.

The upsurge in clashes near Damascus  and elsewhere comes as leaders of the Arab League, a regional confederation, left for New York with hopes of persuading the United Nations Security Council to back a league plan calling on President Bashar Assad to relinquish power. Russia, one of the Security Council members with veto power, has said it opposes any move toward regime change.

The fierce fighting reported outside Damascus on Sunday was the latest sign that the armed insurgency — long concentrated in regional flash point cities like Homs and Hama — has now closed in on the city from which the Assad family has ruled in autocratic fashion  for more than 40 years. That reign now appears threatened as never before.

More than 200 people have been killed in fierce clashes nationwide since Thursday, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, an opposition coalition. Dozens more casualties were reported Sunday.

The opposition  group said that convoys of tanks, army personnel carriers, buses and a “large number of infantry” stormed the Ghouta area east of Damascus, a hotbed of the rebellion. The military was said to be seeking to oust armed rebels from suburbs including Saqba, Kfar Batna and Hammouriya, where armed insurgents have battled government forces.

Opposition activists said the government feared losing entrances to the capital city. Most experts say Assad’s army remains strong, despite many defections that have formed the basis of the armed rebellion. However,  the military and security services are clearly pressed to put down armed uprisings over a broad geographic area.

Armed rebels have been using guerrilla tactics, blowing up oil and gas pipelines, striking at troops from buildings and attacking transport vehicles, deploying the kind of roadside bombs that became a signature part of the war against U.S. forces  in neighboring Iraq.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch

Photo: An image from amateur video made available by the Ugarit News group purports to show a funeral in Damascus, Syria. Credit: Associated Press

 
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