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Nervy Assad closes iron fist around his capital

Syrian forces shelled residential districts on the outskirts of Damascus yesterday as the country's president, Bashar al-Assad, launched a major offensive to regain full control of his capital.

Opposition activists reported bodies littering the streets after advancing troops waged a relentless artillery barrage on four of the city's outlying districts. At least 19 people were said to have been killed, 14 of them civilians.

The latest deaths came days after Syria's 10-month uprising entered a particularly violent phase that some observers attributed to regime nervousness following a string of rebel gains in Damascus and elsewhere.

For the first few weeks of an Arab League mission, deployed last month, the Syrian armed forces showed relative restraint when compared with the blood-letting that gripped the country in the autumn.

Although hundreds of people were still killed after the monitors' arrival, the violence has escalated sharply, with nearly 250 deaths reported since last Tuesday.

In protest at the rising toll, the Arab League suspended its controversial monitoring mission over the weekend and officials at the body's headquarters in Cairo indicated that it was likely to be scrapped altogether.

Nabil Elaraby, the league's secretary-general, arrived in New York yesterday to lobby the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution supporting an Arab peace plan that calls on Mr Assad to step down.

The Security Council is expected to hold a debate on Syria this week, but Russia has indicated that it will veto any resolution that threatens sanctions or hints at regime change.

Moscow's support for Mr Assad had appeared to waver towards the end of last year, but it has swung behind its old ally amid fears of revolutionary contagion in the wake of pro-democracy protests there.

Brushing off international condemnation, Mr Assad has made a determined effort to reverse gains made by the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The regime's return to a strategy of force comes after the rebels seized control of satellite towns on the edge of Damascus, bringing them to within five miles of the city's historic centre.

Thousands of troops yesterday advanced a large infantry column into the Damascus suburbs of Saqba, Hammouriya and Kfar Batna, as well as the satellite town of Douma.

The artillery onslaught was brutal and indiscriminate, according to the opposition.

"Houses were shelled at random and innocent civilians were killed in the streets," an activist in Kfar Batna said.

Observers say that although the rebels have been bolstered by a growing number of army defections, they appear too divided and poorly organised to hold territory when pro-regime forces launch a counter-attack.

The opposition remains too weak to topple the regime, which still largely commands the loyalty of the military, political and business establishments. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent