Syrian forces backed by helicopter gunships and tanks launched a deadly assault on parts of Damascus on Wednesday, activists said, as the regime battles to stomp out rebel resistance in the capital.
At least 37 people were reported killed in Damascus alone, a day after a top minister hinted that the embattled regime was ready to discuss President Bashar al-Assad’s exit in any talks on ending the brutal 17-month conflict.
Fighter jets and artillery hit the commercial capital Aleppo and heavy shelling was reported in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, and the eastern town of Deir Ezzor while rebels claimed they seized parts of a town on the Iraq border, a watchdog said.
The army attacked several areas where anti-regime sentiment is strong in and around the southwest of Damascus, including with heavy shelling, helicopter fire and mass arrest sweeps, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In the deadliest operation, the army raided the southwestern district of Kafr Sousa, killing at least 24 civilians, it said, while a pro-opposition journalist was also killed during a raid on his home in Damascus.
The violence was some of the worst since regime forces reclaimed most of the capital a month ago, and dozens of bullet-riddled bodies were found in the Damascus suburb of Qaboon, according to the Observatory.
Meanwhile the opposition Syrian National Council urged the U.N. to investigate reports that dozens of people were killed during shelling and in summary executions in Maadamiyat al-Sham, a town west of Damascus.
The SNC described what happened as a “brutal crime” and urged the Arab League to hold an emergency meeting to discuss “war crimes” perpetrated by the regime in Syria.”
The state-run news agency SANA, meanwhile, quoted an official source as saying that troops clashed with an “armed terrorist group” in Daraya, a suburb just south of Damascus, and seized weapons and a bomb-making factory.
It also reported that the army “inflicted heavy losses on terrorists” in Aleppo.
At least 115 people including 71 civilians were killed nationwide on Wednesday, according to the Observatory, which says a more than 23,000 people have died since the uprising began in March 2011.
Among the latest casualties, four Lebanese villagers died in an air strike while fighting alongside the rebels, according to a security source in Lebanon.
The Observatory has a network of activists on the ground but its claims cannot be independently verified.
Push for Assad’s resignation
As the fighting raged, the United States and France again pushed for Assad to resign after a top Syrian official said on Tuesday that Damascus was ready to discuss his exit as part of a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
“As far as his resignation goes -- making the resignation itself a condition for holding dialogue means that you will never be able to reach this dialogue,” Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said in Moscow.
But he added: “Any problems can be discussed during negotiations. We are even ready to discuss this issue.”
Moscow, however, bluntly told the West not to meddle in Syria after U.S. President Barack Obama hinted at possible military action if Damascus resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal.
“There should be no interference from the outside,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after talks with Jamil. “The only thing that foreign players should do is create conditions for the start of dialogue.”
Washington was unimpressed by the apparent overture from Damascus.
“We still believe that the faster Assad goes, the more chance there is to quickly move on to the day after,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, dismissing Jamil’s comments as “nothing terribly new.”
Russia, a Syrian ally since Soviet times, believes Syria has no intention of using its chemical weapons and is able to safeguard them, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on Wednesday, citing an unidentified Foreign Ministry official.
Obama threatened Assad on Monday with “enormous consequences” if he employed chemical weapons or even if he moved them in a menacing way.
In telephone conversations with Obama and French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed “how to build on the support already given to the opposition to end the appalling violence in Syria,” Cameron’s office said.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the incoming U.N. mediator on Syria, met representatives of the Free Syrian Army in Paris on Wednesday. The group said it was skeptical he would succeed where his predecessor - Kofi Annan - had failed.
“Foreign intervention that is not through a Security Council resolution is something that very seldom works,” Brahimi told Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
“My instinct is to say please, let’s see if we can solve this problem without external military intervention.”
The conflict has spilled over again into neighboring Lebanon, with nine dead in clashes that first erupted late Monday between pro- and anti-Damascus regime supporters in the northern port city of Tripoli.
The United Nations puts the death toll at 17,000 and says hundreds of thousands more have fled to Syria’s neighbors while another 2.5 million still in the country are in desperate need of aid.
“As the crisis in Syria continues to deteriorate, the situation in Lebanon has become more precarious and the need for continued international support to the government and the Lebanese armed forces increasingly important,” said U.N. undersecretary general Jeffrey Feltman.
And U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told reporters on Wednesday that Security Council divisions would prevent the creation of any safe haven in Syria for the growing number of refugees from the conflict.
Amos, who visited Syria last week, said Damascus is opposed to camps inside Syria and that she does not see “appetite in the Security Council for any kind of resolution to enable that to happen.”