Syrian troops clamp down on Damascus
Damascus - Syrian forces tightened their grip on the outskirts of Damascus on Monday, as Arab and Western nations pushed a UN resolution condemning President Bashar Assad's regime.
Activists have described the violence since last week as the most intense of the 10-month-old uprising, with at least 13 civilians and six members of the security forces killed on Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
On Sunday, 80 people were reportedly killed, equally divided between military and civilian casualties.
Regime forces, who were reported to have executed a founder of the deserter army, appeared determined to wrest back control of Damascus suburbs which have intermittently fallen into the hands of rebel fighters.
Near the capital, troops penetrated Rankus, 40km north of the capital, after having shelled the town which the army had encircled for the past six days, the Observatory said.
Activists at the scene said deserters pulled out of Rankus as the army moved in while in the eastern suburbs, and that snipers were "shooting at everything that moves" in Irbin and Hammuriyeh.
Rebel leader executed
Across the area, government soldiers have set up checkpoints at strategic intersections in search of armed fighters or suspects wanted by security services.
Free Syrian Army colonel Hussein Harmush, a founder of the rebel group made up of army defectors, was executed last week, said the Syrian League for Human Rights, in a report which could not be independently confirmed.
In June, Harmush became the first Syrian military officer to publicly declare his opposition to the regime's deadly crackdown on protesters.
Harmush left Syria seeking exile in Turkey, where he established the Brigade of Free Officers, a group of dozens of deserters later absorbed into the Free Syrian Army headed by Riyadh Asaad.
Months later, his "confessions" were aired on Syrian national television after his return home in unclear circumstances.
Elsewhere, rebel soldiers on Monday "attacked a minibus carrying six security officers on their way to make arrests in Hirak, killing all of the passengers", the
Gas pipeline attacked
Government forces responded by deploying two tanks which opened fire and killed three civilians in the Daraa province town of southern Syria, it said.
The rights group also said nine civilians were killed as security forces stormed Homs in central Syria, including a young girl hit by gunfire from a checkpoint in the Karm al-Zeitun district of the flashpoint city.
Meanwhile, state news agency SANA reported a "terrorist group" attacked a gas pipeline in Homs province, near the border with Lebanon.
Syrian cities have been subjected to energy shortages for several weeks, which the authorities blame on "armed terrorist groups" but the opposition says the regime carries them out to punish protest hubs.
The latest spike in violence, on top of what the United Nations said at the start of January already added up to 5 400 killings, pushed the Arab League to suspend its mission to Syria on Saturday.
League chief Nabil al-Arabi, who is expected in New York on Monday to try to lobby for a UN resolution condemning Syria, said the decision was taken after Damascus "chose the option of escalation".
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is to head to New York on Tuesday to press the Security Council into taking action over the Assad regime's "crimes against humanity", his ministry said.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Bernard Valero said a ministerial meeting at the UN on Tuesday would allow the Security Council to listen to the Arab League's report on the situation in Syria.
Arabi said on Sunday he hopes Moscow and Beijing will alter their position and allow the Security Council to issue a resolution backing a new League plan to end the crisis.
This plan looks to a halt in the violence and Assad transferring power to his deputy ahead of negotiations - a formula flatly rejected by Damascus.
Moscow, which has close ties with its Soviet-era ally and opposes the draft UN resolution, on Monday said Syrian authorities have agreed to an offer by Russia to meet opposition representatives.
"Our offer has already received a positive response from the Syrian authorities. We are expecting that the opposition will also give their assent in the next days and put the interests of the Syrian people before any other ideas," it said.
The opposition has in the past refused talks with the regime.