Armored forces loyal to President Bashar Assad took control on Sunday of eastern suburbs of Damascus from opposition fighters after two days of bombardment and fighting with rebels, activists said.
"The Free Syrian Army has made a tactical withdrawal. Regime forces have re-occupied the suburbs and started making house to house arrests," Kamal, one of the activists, said by phone from the eastern Ghouta area on the edge Damascus.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, under which army defectors fighting Assad's forces are loosely organized, would not be drawn on operational details but said tanks had entered the eastern Ghouta suburbs.
"Tanks have gone in but they do not know where the Free Syrian Army is. We are still operating close to Damascus," Maher Naimi told Reuters by phone from Turkey.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.”
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
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.
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
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 contributed to this report.