The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a total of 41 civilian deaths across Syria on Sunday, including 14 in Homs province and 12 in the city of Hama. Thirty-one soldiers and members of the security forces were also killed, most of them in two attacks by army deserters in the northern province of Idlib, it said.

Activists said that Syrian soldiers killed 19 people in fighting to retake Damascus suburbs from rebels on Sunday. A day earlier, the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission because of mounting violence.

Late Saturday night, Hamas denied reports it would be abandoning its headquarters in Damascus, after news emerged on Friday that the Islamist group had squashed protests in Gaza against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Around 2,000 Syrian soldiers in buses and armored personnel carriers, along with at least 50 tanks and armored vehicles, moved at dawn into the Ghouta area on the eastern edge of Damascus to reinforce an offensive in the suburbs of Saqba, Hammouriya and Kfar Batna, activists said Sunday.

The army pushed into the heart of Kfar Batna and four tanks were in its central square, they said, in a move to flush out rebels who had taken over districts just a few kilometers from Assad’s center of power.

“It’s urban war. There are bodies in the street,” said one activist, speaking from Kfar Batna. Activists said 14 civilians and five insurgents from the rebel Free Syrian Army were killed there and in other suburbs.

The Arab League suspended the work of its monitors on Saturday after calling on Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity. It said Arab foreign ministers would discuss the Syrian crisis on February 5.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby left for New York on Sunday, where he will brief representatives of the UN Security Council on Tuesday to seek support for an Arab peace plan that calls on Assad to step aside after 10 months of protests. He will be joined by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, whose country heads the league’s committee charged with overseeing Syria.

Speaking shortly before he left Cairo for New York, Elaraby said he hoped to overcome resistance from China and Russia over endorsing the Arab proposals.

“There are contacts with China and Russia on this issue,” he said.

Syria’s insurgency has been gradually approaching the capital, whose suburbs – a series of mainly conservative Sunni towns bordering old gardens and farmland – are home to the bulk of Damascus’s population.

The Damascus suburbs have seen large demonstrations demanding the removal of Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that has dominated the mostly Sunni country for the last five decades. On Friday, activists said 10 people had also been killed while demonstrating in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, which has remained largely quiet until now.

In Rankous, 30 km. north of Damascus by the Lebanese border, Assad’s forces have killed at least 33 people in recent days in an attack to dislodge army defectors and insurgents, activists and residents said Sunday.

Rankous, a mountain town of 25,000 people, has been under tank fire since Wednesday, when several thousand troops laid siege to it, they said.

France, which has been leading calls for stronger international action on Syria, said the Arab League decision highlighted the need to act.

“France vigorously condemns the dramatic escalation of violence in Syria, which has led the Arab League to suspend its observers’ mission in Syria,” the Foreign Ministry said. “Dozens of Syrian civilians have been killed in the past days by the savage repression taken by the Syrian regime... Those responsible for these barbarous acts must answer to their crimes.”

The Arab League mission was sent in at the end of last year to observe Syria’s implementation of a peace plan, which failed to end the fighting. Gulf states withdrew monitors last week, saying the team could not stop the violence.

The United Nations said in December more than 5,000 people had been killed in the protests and crackdown.

On Friday, the UN Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed. Britain and France said they hoped to put it to a vote next week.

Russia joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October, and has said it wants a Syrian-led political process, not “an Arab League-imposed outcome” or Libyan-style “regime change.”

On Saturday a spokesman for Hamas denied the Islamist group would be leaving Damascus due to the unrest there.

“Hamas has not taken any decision to leave Syria, and we are still there,” Fawzi Barhoum told AFP, adding that the visible movement of Hamas officials out of Syria is related to inter-Palestinian political reconciliation.

A Palestinian official in Gaza City told AFP that Hamas was not going to close its Damascus bureau, but said “for reasons of security some leaders may feel obliged at times to leave the country.”

Back-and-forth reports have circulated for months whether or not Hamas has decided to close the bureau in Damascus, which was established after Jordan banned the group and exiled its leaders in 1999. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Amman on Sunday for a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah that has been described as an attempt at reconciliation between the Islamist group and the Hashemite Kingdom.

On Friday, diplomatic and intelligence sources said Mashaal has effectively abandoned his headquarters in the Syrian capital.

“Mashaal is not staying in Syria as he used to do. He is almost out all the time,” said a diplomat in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A regional intelligence source, who also did not wish to be identified, said: “He’s not going back to Syria. That’s the decision he’s made. There’s still a Hamas presence there, but it’s insignificant.”

Analysts say Mashaal was embarrassed by Assad’s violent crackdown, with more than 5,000 people reported killed.

Many victims of the security forces have been Sunni and allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose support Mashaal relies on.

The sources said Mashaal would not publicly shut down the political headquarters of Hamas in Syria, where it has long been hosted by Assad and by his father before him.

“In the past month he may have only stayed five days in Syria and the rest he spent in Qatar, Turkey and Egypt,” said the diplomat. “But he did not close the headquarters in Syria in full and there are some Hamas officials still there. Our belief is that Hamas will not announce a departure from Syria even if it happened,” the diplomat added.

Arabic media reported Saturday that the Hamas rulers of Gaza had broken up an anti-Assad rally in the Strip this weekend.

The London-based daily Asharq Alawsat reported Hamas security forces “forcefully” dispersed a pro-Syrian opposition protest in Gaza City just days before Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is expected to head to Syria’s ally Iran.

Haniyeh is scheduled to visit Tehran this week. Hamas is backed by the Islamic Republic – which also backs Syria and Hezbollah as part of a regional alliance – and Hamas does not want to be seen as putting the so-called “resistance” alliance in jeopardy.

Jerusalem Post staff and Reuters contributed to this report.

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