Syrian troops move on new rebel areas near Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops battled army defectors in a string of towns in the mountains overlooking Damascus on Wednesday in a new assault to crush rebellious areas around the capital, activists said.

The battles in a mountain valley came after regime forces succeeded in largely retaking control of suburbs on the eastern side of the city in an offensive the past week that fueled some of the bloodiest days of the nearly 11-month-old uprising.

Activists said President Bashar Assad’s forces have intensified their crackdown in hopes of silencing protesters and the army dissidents who have joined them as the U.N. Security Council debates a draft resolution demanding that Mr. Assad step down.

On Tuesday, Western powers and Arab countries at the United Nations sought to overcome Russia’s opposition to the measure. Addressing the Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to allay Moscow’s concerns that the resolution could open the door to eventual military intervention in Syria, as took place in Libya last year.

“I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya,” she said. “That is a false analogy.”

“It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Russia has stood by Mr. Assad as he tries to crush an uprising that began last March. In October, Moscow vetoed the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria‘s crackdown and has shown little sign of budging in its rejection of the new measure. The latest resolution would demand Mr. Assad carry out an Arab League peace plan by which he would hand his powers to the vice president and allow formation of a unity government to pave the way for elections.

On Wednesday, shelling and machine-gun fire rattled in towns along the Wadi Barada, a valley in the mountains a few miles northwest of Damascus near the Lebanese border, according to online video posted by activists.

The valley leads to the mountain resort town of Zabadani, an opposition stronghold that has been under the control of rebel soldiers and protesters for several weeks.

At least six army defectors were killed in the fighting, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said some of the regime forces battered the towns of Deir Qanoun and Ein al-Fija, causing an unconfirmed number of casualties.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said at least 17 people were killed in the valley, including five military dissidents from the group known as the Free Syrian Army. It was impossible to reconcile the two group’s figures.

The fact that rebels made it to the doorstep of Damascus, the seat of Mr. Assad’s power, was a dangerous development for the regime. Rebel soldiers had grown bolder, setting up checkpoints and protecting protesters in suburbs surrounding Damascus.

But a military offensive largely succeeded in crushing the remaining resistance on the eastern side of the capital by Tuesday. The LCC said troops were raiding homes in some of those suburbs Wednesday, looking for activists.

In the central city of Homs, one of the biggest flashpoints of the uprising and a scene of daily fighting, government troops were shelling neighborhoods and fighting defectors in several neighborhoods. At least eight residents were killed, the Observatory said.

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