- Associated Press - Sunday, January 29, 2012

BEIRUT — The Syrian military launched an offensive to regain control of suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus on Sunday, storming neighborhoods and clashing with groups of army defectors in fierce fighting that sent residents fleeing and killed at least 12 people, activists said.

Violence elsewhere in the country killed at least 17 more people, including six soldiers in a roadside bombing south of the capital.

But the heaviest fighting was focused in a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, where government troops reinforced by dozens of tanks and armored vehicles battled with armed defectors who have grown increasingly bold, staking out positions and setting up checkpoints in recent days.

Some of the fighting on Sunday was only two miles from Damascus, in Ein Tarma, making it the closest yet to the capital as President Bashar Assad’s regime pushes to uproot protesters and dissident soldiers who have joined the opposition.

“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 10-month uprising against Mr. Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has grown increasingly militarized recently as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms against the regime.

The assault on the suburbs seemed to be a sign of the growing presence of dissident soldiers closer to Damascus, and the regime’s rising concern about the situation.

Although the tightly controlled capital has been relatively quiet since the uprising began, its outskirts have witnessed intense anti-regime protests and army defectors have become more visible and active in the past few months.

The military has responded with a withering assault on a string of Damascus suburbs in a bid to stamp out the resistance, leading to a spike in violence that has killed nearly 100 people since Thursday.

The rising bloodshed has added urgency to new attempts by Arab and Western countries to find a resolution to the 10 months of violence.