Rebels, regime duke it out near Damascus

Moscow's influence over Syrian regime fades

 

Another day of fighting consumed the outskirts of Syria's capital Friday as diplomats scrambled to find a political solution to the nation's civil war.

The violence has been edging closer to President Bashar al-Assad's seat of power in Damascus as rebels eye chances to turn the tide in the bloody conflict.

U.S. and Russian diplomats are urgently focused on ways to end the warfare -- a situation intensifying amid reports that the government may be preparing to use chemical weapons.

 

Rebels flexed their muscles in the towns and villages near Damascus on Friday, battling regime forces and enduring a hail of missiles and shells in towns, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

Of the 30 people slain Friday, 22 were from the suburbs, including two children -- one slain by a mortar and another by a sniper, the LCC said.

Elsewhere, the disfigured bodies of 50 people were found in Deir Ezzor, the LCC said Friday. The group said the people had been kidnapped about two months ago and massacred by the government. Activists found the bodies, the LCC said.

The city of Homs, battered earlier this year by regime forces, endured a car bombing near a mosque, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said. The blast wounded 15 people. A government official blamed the blast on "al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups," the news outlet reported.

And street-by-street fighting raged in parts of Aleppo, an urban war zone where government forces and rebels fought amid the rubble of buildings devastated in battle.

As they have every week during the 21-month-old crisis, anti-government demonstrators staged rallies after Friday prayers at mosques across the country, including Aleppo and the Damascus region.

"We will never kneel down, never again, to anyone but God," the protesters in Aleppo chanted.

Outside Damascus, in the city of Douma, a crowd repeated a chant sung by a child: "Our country will be free, we have no one but God. The glad tidings are coming."

In Northern Ireland, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she, U.N.-Arab League point man on Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reviewed the very dangerous divisions inside Syria during talks Thursday in Dublin, Ireland.

All three "committed to supporting a renewed push by Brahimi and his team to work with all the stakeholders in Syria" toward a peaceful transition based on the outlines agreed to in Geneva in June, she said.

"No one believes there was some great breakthrough," and they are under no illusions about the difficulty of the way forward, she said.

But it's a start, she said.

"All of us with any influence on the process, with any influence on the regime or the opposition, need to be engaged with Brahimi for a concerted, sincere push to see what is possible in the face of the advancements on the ground that are increasingly dangerous, not just to Syrians but to their neighbors," Clinton said.

She said there would be a meeting in the next few days where the United States and Russia would send senior officials to talk about how to move forward.

Syrians from all religious groups must be represented in the transition process, she said. "Every citizen must be included in this process for a new and better future."

But she stressed that any resolution cannot include al-Assad.

Lavrov said Russian officials will consult with Brahimi, in "the coming days," the outlet RIA Novosti reported. A Russian Foreign Ministry tweet said: "Russia, U.S. agree that their experts should hold a brainstorming meeting with Brahimi and exchange opinions on Syrian settlement."

Russia and the United States disagree on how to resolve the conflict, which started when al-Assad's forces cracked down on peaceful protesters in March 2011.

The persistent crackdown against dissent generated a nationwide anti-government sentiment and an armed rebellion. Opposition forces estimate that more than 40,000 people have been killed in what is now regarded as a civil war.

The United States, its Western allies and leading Arab states have condemned al-Assad. But Russia has stood behind its longtime allies in Damascus, blocking action in the U.N. Security Council and warning against outside intervention on behalf of the opposition.

Chemical weapons were one topic on the table, said Clinton, who met with Lavrov and Brahimi while she was in Dublin for an international security conference.

U.S. officials are concerned that al-Assad's forces may use chemical weapons as rebels advance, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said. He did not provide additional details about the intelligence information.

CNN reported Monday that Syrian forces battling rebels in fierce fighting had started combining chemicals that could be used to make deadly sarin gas for weapons. NBC reported Wednesday night that Syria was loading chemical weapons into bombs. CNN has not confirmed the NBC report.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV that "Syria would never use chemical weapons, even if it had them, against its own people.

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