Syria troops regain key Damascus suburb

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops flushed out rebels from a key Damascus suburb Saturday, regaining control of a key area just outside the capital after a 10-day assault that left dozens dead, hundreds wounded and caused a major humanitarian crisis.

The relentless offensive against Douma forced residents and fighters to flee, leaving a trail of destruction and bodies in the streets, activists said.

In Zamalka, another suburb of Damascus, activists said more than 30 people were killed and many others wounded Saturday evening when a mortar shell struck a car that exploded as a funeral procession was taking place.

The exact circumstances were not immediately clear. It was not known who fired the mortar.

World powers meeting in Geneva to push for an end to the bloodshed accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan for Syria on Saturday, but left open whether President Bashar Assad could be part of a transitional government.

The sprawling suburb of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, has been a hotbed of dissent against Assad’s regime since the start of the uprising in March 2011. Securing control of the suburb for a sustained period would be a significant triumph for the regime.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activist Mohammed Saeed said regime forces recaptured Douma late Friday. The latest offensive was the worst of several assaults on the area, the Observatory said.

“The situation in Douma is catastrophic. The suburb is badly destroyed,” Saeed said via Skype, adding that he was among dozens of residents who fled on foot through the fields to safer areas for fear of being captured by security forces.

The state-run SANA news agency reported the government was still pursuing “armed terrorist groups” in its effort to “cleanse” Douma, using its term for the rebels, noting that dozens had been killed and their weapons seized.

Central Damascus is an Assad stronghold, but regime forces have battled to control the ring of suburbs and settlements in the surrounding countryside. The army launches frequent offensives in the suburbs only to see them slip back under rebel control.

Saeed said troops stormed two makeshift hospitals where seriously wounded people were being treated. “The doctors fled and the wounded remained. Their fate is unknown,” he said.

The latest violence came as representatives of global and regional powers met Saturday in an increasingly desperate bid to agree on a peaceful formula to end the bloody crisis in Syria, including Assad’s role in a transitional government.

The talks hosted by the United Nations at its European headquarters in Geneva were seen as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the peace plan brokered by the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

The U.S. backed away from demands that Assad be excluded, hoping the concession would encourage Russia to put greater pressure on its longtime ally to end the violent crackdown that the opposition says has claimed over 14,000 lives.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Assad would still have to go, saying “it is now “incumbent on Russia and China to show Assad the writing on the wall.”

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