DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: The Syrian army appeared to launch a fresh assault on rebel bastions in and around the capital Damascus Tuesday, and sent extra troops to the second city Aleppo, where rebels are engaged in a prolonged stalemate against government forces for control of the city.
The renewed heavy shelling in the capital came hours after U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged Damascus to show compassion to its people and the opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll over 18-months of conflict had topped 31,000 people.
A bombardment by the army of the rebel-held Harasta district in the eastern suburbs of the capital killed at least 11 people, two of them women, the Observatory added.
And up to 20 people were killed in what Damascus-based activist Omar al-Khani described as “fierce and indiscriminate shelling.”
“The regime has lost control of Aleppo ... and the whole country. Now he is trying to keep Damascus under control,” he told The Daily Star via Skype.
Amateur video posted by activists showed several vehicles carrying women driving off under the cover of darkness in what they said was an exodus of Douma residents.
The army also bombarded a string of other towns outside Damascus, the Observatory said.
Activist network the Local Coordination Committees said more than 100 shells fell on Zabadani, once a resort destination known for its mild weather and scenic views but now devastated by the civil war ravaging Syria.
The official daily Al-Baath said Tuesday that the “end of security operations throughout Damascus province” was approaching.
Government forces “have destroyed many weapons caches and seized large quantities of ammunition and equipment ... which indicates that the end of security operations throughout Damascus province is approaching,” the paper said.
Regime forces have pushed the rebels to the outskirts of the capital but have lost control of several border crossings and are battling to fully retake Syria’s second city of Aleppo – a focal point of the conflict since mid-July.
Several districts of Aleppo were bombed Tuesday, the Observatory said, while pro-regime daily Al-Watan said extra troops were being sent to the city.
“New reinforcements have arrived to support the army ... and the armed men [rebels] are now fatigued and have begun to flee to their villages and towns in the province of Aleppo and elsewhere,” the paper added.Violence also raged Tuesday in the southern province of Deraa, according to the Observatory. Nine rebels were also killed in an explosion at dawn near the Jordanian border. Nine people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in shelling and clashes in a camp for displaced people.
At least, 31,022 people have now been killed in violence since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule erupted in March last year, according to the Observatory’s figures.
At least 4,727 people died in September alone, including 305 on Sept. 26 – the bloodiest single day of the conflict.
On the political front, Ban said after a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem at U.N. headquarters in New York that it was time for Damascus to lower the scale of its offensive against the insurgency.
Meanwhile, Moallem told the U.N. General Assembly that Assad was open to reforms if the violence stopped. “We still believe in a political solution as an essential way out of the crisis.”
Syrian ally Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in comments broadcast Tuesday that a national dialogue leading to elections was the way toward a solution to Syria’s crisis.
He told Al-Jazeera television that war was not the way forward. “There is another way to find a solution, it is national, mutual understanding in order for there to be elections in the future,” he said.
“There must be a different way to solve problems ... I have opposed war, but those who want things to be settled through dialogue are a minority and perhaps the majority are in favor of going ahead in the context of war,” Ahmadinejad added.
Russia, meanwhile, told NATO and world powers Tuesday they should not seek ways to intervene in Syria’s civil war or set up buffer zones between rebels and government forces.
When asked by Interfax whether Moscow worried that the tense border situation could prompt NATO to intervene to defend Turkey, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov warned against any such step.
“In our contacts with partners in NATO and in the region, we are calling on them not to seek pretexts for carrying out a military scenario or to introduce initiatives such as humanitarian corridors or buffer zones.”