Middle East

Syria clashes rage amid chemical weapons fears

People gather in front of a building and cars damaged by what Syria's national news agency SANA says is a bomb explosion in the Mazeh 86 area in Damascus, in this December 6, 2012 handout photo released by SANA. REUTERS/SANA/Handout

DAMASCUS: Syria's army sent reinforcements to a rebel town near Damascus and clashes raged south of the city on Friday, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged a "concerted push" to end the conflict after talks with her Russian counterpart.

The world's chemical weapons watchdog asked Syria to sign up to a convention banning their use, as an opposition leader called on the international community to stop President Bashar al-Assad's regime unleashing a chemical arms "disaster."

Inside Syria, activists feared a new ground assault on Damascus suburbs where military reinforcements poured in, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The army bombed orchards surrounding Daraya where military reinforcements are heading," it said, citing activists on the ground.

"Moadamiyet al-Sham was also violently pounded and large reinforcements were deployed apparently to attack the town," added the Britain-based watchdog which gathers information from a network of activists and medics across Syria.

The outskirts of Damascus, where the regime has launched an operation to reclaim territory within eight kilometres (five miles) of the city, are at the heart of the fighting.

Analysts say the Assad regime wants to ensure its hold on the capital so it can be in a position to negotiate a solution to the nearly 21-month conflict that the Observatory says has killed more than 42,000 people.

It said 54 people were killed on Friday -- 15 civilians, 15 soldiers and 24 rebels.

Amid unrelenting violence nationwide, protesters took to the streets for weekly Friday protests in several towns and cities, notably in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, Aleppo in the north, and Hasakeh in the northeast.

Demonstrators protested under the slogan "No to peacekeeping forces in Syria," activists said.

Clinton called on all parties with influence in Syria to make a "concerted push" together to halt the conflict.

She said there had been no "great breakthrough" during talks in Dublin on Thursday with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but that there would be further meetings between officials.

"No one should have any illusions about how hard this remains," Clinton said.

Recent developments in Syria were "increasingly dangerous, not only to Syrians but to their neighbours," she said.

Clinton's statements came as a key Syrian opposition leader urged the world to act to avert a chemical weapons disaster that would impact not only the embattled country's neighbours but also security worldwide.

"We ask the countries of the world to act before disaster hits, not after," Syrian National Council chief George Sabra told reporters.

"The danger does not only threaten just Syria and its neighbours, but will also have a negative impact on global security."

"The Syrian people will neither forget nor forgive anyone who orders the use of weapons of mass destruction, or anyone who is complicit in the crime, or anyone who moves only after the crime is committed," he added.

Sabra's comments, aired by Al-Jazeera television, came amid mounting international warnings to the regime not to use chemical weapons against the rebellion.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Friday asked Damascus to sign up to a convention banning the weapons' use, citing "serious concerns" that for the first time in the agreement's history they might be used.

"Syria has an opportunity to assure the international community that it repudiates chemical weapons by agreeing to join the Chemical Weapons Convention," OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu said.

And UN chief Ban Ki-moon said that the possible use of chemical weapons would be an "outrageous crime."

US officials said privately this week that the Damascus regime had begun mixing precursor chemicals that could be used for sarin, a lethal nerve agent. Some media reports said the substance had been loaded into bombs for warplanes.

Meanwhile, following a Turkish request to NATO for missile deployment along its restive border with Syria, the Dutch cabinet gave the go-ahead to send two Patriot units with a maximum of 360 troops to operate them, Dutch media said.

And a stray bullet fired from inside Syria wounded a Jordanian soldier on the border, prompting the army to respond, an armed forces spokesman in Amman said.

The United Nations also said it was strengthening its unarmed Golan Heights force monitoring a Syria-Israel ceasefire because of the growing threat from the Syria conflict.





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