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Fighting Continues Near Damascus; Russia Offers Mediation


Syrian Troops Retake Damascus Suburbs
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Gunfire and explosions have rocked the suburbs of Damascus for a third consecutive day, as the country's conflict appeared to be moving closer to the capital and the base of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The fighting came as competing peace initiatives proposed by the West, Russia, and the Arab League vied for position on the diplomatic stage.

By early on January 30, after two days of fighting in the Ghouta area on the eastern edge of Damascus, reports said Syrian security forces with tanks and other heavy weaponry appeared to have regained control of several neighborhoods.

Government troops were carrying out what was described as "combing operations" in those neighborhoods to find straggling army deserters who had been in control of the area a few days earlier.

One group opposed to Assad's regime said at least nine people had been killed by security forces in the area since dawn on January 30 and another 45 arrested.

On January 29, at least 60 people reportedly were killed in the fighting.

Such reports cannot be independently verified because of a government ban against foreign journalists in Syria.

But it is clear from many witnesses, as well as videos that have been emerging on social-media websites, that Syrian forces have been conducting a major operation on the eastern edge of Damascus since January 28 -- fighting against military deserters who support antigovernment demonstrators and have joined the so-called Free Syria Army.

Competing Initiatives

On the diplomatic front, Russia's Foreign Ministry has announced that the Syrian government has agreed to participate in a Russian initiative for informal talks in Moscow with Syrian opposition figures.

But an unnamed senior member of the Syrian Opposition Council says no invitation has been received and that any talks backed by Moscow would be rejected.

France and Britain have meanwhile announced that their foreign ministers will travel to the United Nations to speak on January 31 in support of a UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian crisis.

Arab League ministers also are traveling to the UN meeting and are urging Russia and China to drop their opposition to an Arab League-backed Security Council resolution addressing the Syrian conflict.

The Arab League, which suspended its Syria monitoring mission and is scheduled this on February 5 to decide whether to withdraw the mission completely, is proposing a UN resolution that calls for Assad to step down to be replaced by a deputy before the launch of negotiations between the government and opposition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 30 at a news conference in Auckland, New Zealand, that Russia would "listen" to the Arab League proposals, but also said Russia was "surprised" by the decision to suspend the monitoring mission in Syria.

The Arab League wants "to present their new decisions and new ideas to the UN Security Council, we will certainly listen to them -- this should happen if I am not mistaken at the start of next week," Lavrov said, "but at the same time we declared that we need to read the report itself, on which the decisions to be presented to the UN Security Council were based."

Russia, seen as a longtime ally of the Syrian regime, has blocked previous Western efforts for a resolution threatening potential measures against the Syrian regime over the violence against antigovernment protesters.

Rebel Leader Killed

The Syrian League for Human Rights has reported that the founder of the Free Syria Army, Colonel Hussein Harmush, was executed last week by a firing squad comprised of members of a Syrian Air Force intelligence unit. That report also could not be immediately confirmed.

In June, Harmush was the first Syrian military officer to publicly declare his opposition to the deadly crackdown by Assad's regime against protesters. Harmush made that statement from a refugee camp in Turkey.

Months later, after he returned to Syria under unclear circumstances, Harmush was shown on Syrian national television making what appeared to be a forced confession.

Many Syrian refugees are convinced Harmush was kidnapped from the refugee camp by Syrian agents.

In other developments, Syria's state news agency, SANA, reported that an armed group it described as "terrorists" had blown up a pipeline that carries gas from the central province of Homs to an area near the border with Lebanon.

The United Nations says at least 5,400 people have been killed in 10 months of violence but that it is not confident it can keep up with the death toll in Syria, which maintains tight control of media.

Compiled from agency reports

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