Syrian army battles rebels on edges of Damascus
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Syria's army has launched a fierce assault against rebel fighters battling to enter the centre of Damascus, blasting strongholds and sealing the main entrances to the capital, as opposition factions bickered over dialogue with the Assad regime.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a fierce assault around the centre of Damascus on Wednesday as rebels sought to break through to the heart of the capital.
"The army has launched a coordinated all-out offensive on all of the areas surrounding the capital," said a Syrian security official who declined to be identified. "All entries to Damascus have been sealed."
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bombardment and clashes around Damascus were the heaviest for a long time.
"The province was bombed very badly in attacks that have not been seen in months. There was also very heavy fighting," he said.
Assad, battling to crush a 22-month-old uprising in which 60,000 people have died, has lost control of large parts of the country but his forces, backed by air power, have so far kept rebels on the fringes of the capital.
The encroaching rebels now aim to break a stalemate in the city of two million people.
“We have moved the battle to Jobar, because it is the key to the heart of Damascus,” said Captain Islam Alloush of the rebel Islam Brigade. The district links rebel strongholds in the suburbs with the central Abbasid Square.
Shattering months of relative calm in the capital, Wednesday's offensive coincided with two suicide car bombings that killed almost 20 members of the security forces in the ancient city of Palmyra, a watchdog reported.
Opposition divided on dialogue
It also came as an offer by opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib for peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad's regime suffered setbacks, with Damascus ignoring it and a key opposing faction flatly rejecting the initiative.
The surprise gesture by Khatib, head of the opposition National Coalition, was welcomed by the United States and the Arab League, and was expected to receive the backing of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi welcomed the "positive" offer but warned it was not enough for a political solution.
Asked if he could see an end in sight to Syria's bloodshed – which according to UN figures has killed over 60,000 people in nearly two years – the UN-Arab League envoy told the French daily La Croix: "Not for the moment."
Assad himself has yet to comment on the offer by Khatib, who stepped up the pressure to engage in talks by setting the regime a deadline of Sunday for the release of all women held in Syrian prisons.
"The demand that the women are released means that if there is one single woman still in prison in Syria on Sunday, I consider that the regime has rejected my initiative," Khatib told BBC Arabic.
The Syrian National Council, the main component of the Coalition, has rejected the possibility of any talks, saying it is committed to ousting Assad's regime, rejecting dialogue with it, and protecting the revolution.
But Khatib, who last week called on Assad to agree to let Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa open peace talks with his coalition, appealed for the opposition to "declare our willingness to negotiate" the regime's departure.
Addressing an OIC summit in Cairo, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi called on opposition factions "to coordinate with this coalition and support their efforts for a unified approach... for democracy".
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who al-Assad counts as one of his last allies, became the first Iranian president to attend the meeting since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)