Syrian troops fight rebels near Damascus

HARASTA, Syria Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:25pm GMT

Syrian soldiers are seen at a checkpoint in Damascus countryside Harasta January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Syrian soldiers are seen at a checkpoint in Damascus countryside Harasta January 26, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

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HARASTA, Syria (Reuters) - A 10-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad edged closer to the Syrian capital on Thursday as troops battled rebels in a town just north of Damascus and a provincial governor spoke of negotiating local ceasefires.

A Syrian officer told Reuters clashes had been under way in Douma since the morning. Security forces were searching houses for arms and wanted suspects. Reporters were shown home-made grenades among other seized weapons.

The officer was speaking in the tense suburb of Harasta nearby, where troops were deployed in strength.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces had detained 200 people in raids in Douma, a hotbed of protests and armed rebellion against Assad.

Gunfire was close enough to be heard from central Damascus during the night.

"Many of them (in the opposition) have been misled. They will eventually come back to the right way," Hussein Makhlouf, governor of Damascus countryside, told Arab League monitors before they headed for some of the capital's troubled suburbs.

"We have started a dialogue with them, including some armed groups that are controlling positions there," Makhlouf said.

He told the observers that the authorities were using "the same approach as in Zabadani, so the same scenario will happen."

This month the military withdrew armoured vehicles encircling the rebel-held town of Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon, after negotiating a truce with its defenders.

Arab observers stopped at an entrance to the Damascus suburb of Irbin, where a dozen soldiers stood guard. Beyond them a crowd of about 100 anti-Assad protesters shouted slogans. The troops showed the monitors the bodies of a soldier and another person they said had been killed in the morning.

The Arab observers soon drove away from the scene without going into the township.

There was no immediate word on casualties in the fighting near Damascus.

DEADLY VIOLENCE

Elsewhere, three people were killed in Homs, a sniper killed a 58-year-old woman in Hama and a 14-year-old boy was killed in the southern city of Deraa, the British-based Observatory said.

The state news agency SANA said "terrorists" had assassinated a colonel in Homs and detonated a bomb in Deraa province, killing an army lieutenant as he tried to defuse it.

SANA said 21 soldiers, security personnel and civilians killed by "armed terrorist groups" were buried on Thursday. It also reported pro-Assad demonstrations in several cities.

The monitors, now without 55 Gulf Arab colleagues withdrawn by their governments this week in protest at continued bloodshed, were resuming work after a one-week gap during which the Arab League prolonged their mission by another month.

Syrian opposition groups have accused the observer mission, which deployed on December 26, of giving Assad diplomatic cover to pursue a crackdown on protesters and rebels in which more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, by a U.N. tally.

The Arab League called on Sunday for Assad to quit as part of a transition plan for which it is seeking U.N. support.

Western and Arab diplomats are working on a draft Security Council resolution on Syria. Russia said it would promote its own text, but did not rule out a compromise.

Russia, one of Syria's few remaining allies along with Iran, has rejected sanctions or military action against Assad.

The Security Council could vote as early as next week on a Western-Arab draft resolution, council diplomats said.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby urged Damascus to end military operations against "defenceless civilians."

In recent months, an insurgency by army deserters and other rebels has increasingly eclipsed peaceful protests against more than four decades of rule by the Assad family.

Activists said the army deployment and clashes in townships around Damascus were a response to insurgents' growing strength.

"The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has almost complete control of some areas of the Damascus countryside and some control in Douma and Harasta," an activist said by telephone from Harasta.

Other activists in Douma, Harasta and Irbin said security forces had gathered in their towns after rebels retreated because they could not fight pitched battles with the army.

"Assad's army has armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft guns while we only have rifles and rocket-propelled grenades," said an FSA fighter who called himself Abu Thaer.

The Arab League has suspended Syria and called for Assad to hand over to his deputy, pending the formation of an unity government, constitutional and security reform, and elections.

Michael Posner, the U.S. State Department's top human rights official, said Washington would work with the League to end the bloodshed in Syria, reiterating that Assad must go.

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, John Irish in Paris and Tom Perry in Cairo; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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