Syrian troops in tanks and armoured vehicles stormed rebellious areas near the capital Sunday, shelling neighbourhoods 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 widescale offensive near the capital suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet while most other Syrian 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 anti-regime protests.
Their presence so close to the capital in tightly controlled Syria suggests the Assad regime may either be losing control or setting up a trap for the fighters before going on the offensive.
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 unravelling 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 some 50 tanks and dozens of armoured vehicles stormed a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus known as al-Ghouta Sunday, a predominantly Sunni Muslim agricultural area where large anti-regime protests have been held.
Some of the fighting on Sunday was less than five kilometres 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. "Troops were able to enter some areas but are still facing stiff resistance in others."
The fighting using mortars and machine-guns sent entire families fleeing, some of them on foot carrying bags of belongings, to the capital.
"The shelling and bullets have not stopped since yesterday," said a man who left his home in Ein Tarma with his family Sunday. "It's terrifying — there's no electricity or water, it's a real war," he said by telephone on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.
The uprising against Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has grown increasingly militarized recently 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 United Nations says at least 5,400 people have been killed in the 10 months of violence.
The UN is holding talks on a new resolution on Syria and next week will discuss an Arab League peace plan aimed at ending the crisis. But the initiatives face two major obstacles: Damascus's rejection of an Arab plan that it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its UN Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters Sunday 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 told reporters in Egypt before leaving for New York with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim.
The two will seek UN support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plan calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice-president full powers to work with the proposed government.
Because of the escalating violence, the Arab League on Saturday halted the work of its observer mission in Syria at least until the League's council can meet. Arab foreign ministers were to meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the Syrian crisis in light of the suspension of the observers' work and Damascus' refusal to agree to the transition timetable, the League said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "concerned" about the League's decision to suspend its monitoring mission and called on Assad to "immediately stop the bloodshed." He spoke Sunday at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.
While the international community scrambles to find a resolution to the crisis, the violence on the ground in Syria has continued unabated.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 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, a hotbed of anti-regime protests. 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 Local Co-ordination Committees' activist network said 50 people were killed Sunday, including 13 who were killed in the suburbs of the capital and two defectors. That count excluded soldiers killed Sunday.
The differing counts could not be reconciled, and the reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities keep tight control on the media and have banned many foreign journalists from entering the country.
Syria's state-run news agency said "terrorists" detonated a roadside bomb by remote control near a bus carrying soldiers in the Damascus suburb of Sahnaya, killing six soldiers and wounding six others, SANA said.
In Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, about 200 members of Syria's Kurdish parties were holding two days of meetings to explore ways of supporting efforts to topple Assad. Kurds, who comprise15 per cent of Syria's 23 million people, have long complained of discrimination