BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops flushed out rebels from a key Damascus suburb Saturday, regaining control of a key area just outside the capital after a 10-day assault that left dozens dead, hundreds wounded and caused a major humanitarian crisis.
The relentless offensive against Douma forced residents and fighters to flee, leaving a trail of destruction and bodies in the streets, activists said.
In Zamalka, another suburb of Damascus, activists said more than 30 people were killed and many others wounded Saturday evening when a mortar shell struck a car that exploded as a funeral procession was taking place.
The exact circumstances were not immediately clear. It was not known who fired the mortar.
World powers meeting in Geneva to push for an end to the bloodshed accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan for Syria on Saturday, but left open whether President Bashar Assad could be part of a transitional government.
The sprawling suburb of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, has been a hotbed of dissent against Assad's regime since the start of the uprising in March 2011. Securing control of the suburb for a sustained period would be a significant triumph for the regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activist Mohammed Saeed said regime forces recaptured Douma late Friday. The latest offensive was the worst of several assaults on the area, the Observatory said.
"The situation in Douma is catastrophic. The suburb is badly destroyed," Saeed said via Skype, adding that he was among dozens of residents who fled on foot through the fields to safer areas for fear of being captured by security forces.
The state-run SANA news agency reported the government was still pursuing "armed terrorist groups" in its effort to "cleanse" Douma, using its term for the rebels, noting that dozens had been killed and their weapons seized.
Central Damascus is an Assad stronghold, but regime forces have battled to control the ring of suburbs and settlements in the surrounding countryside. The army launches frequent offensives in the suburbs only to see them slip back under rebel control.
Saeed said troops stormed two makeshift hospitals where seriously wounded people were being treated. "The doctors fled and the wounded remained. Their fate is unknown," he said.
The latest violence came as representatives of global and regional powers met Saturday in an increasingly desperate bid to agree on a peaceful formula to end the bloody crisis in Syria, including Assad's role in a transitional government.
The talks hosted by the United Nations at its European headquarters in Geneva were seen as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the peace plan brokered by the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
The U.S. backed away from demands that Assad be excluded, hoping the concession would encourage Russia to put greater pressure on its longtime ally to end the violent crackdown that the opposition says has claimed over 14,000 lives.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Assad would still have to go, saying "it is now "incumbent on Russia and China to show Assad the writing on the wall."
Moscow had refused to back a provision that would call for Assad to step aside, insisting that outsiders cannot order a political solution for Syria.
Annan said following talks that "it is for the people of Syria to come to a political agreement."
Syrian opposition groups also planned to meet Monday in Cairo to try to agree on a common vision to deal with the next stage in the conflict, Arab League deputy chief Ahmed ben Heli told reporters.
He said the foreign ministers from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia also were invited, as were Annan and envoys from Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey and Tunisia.
Previous attempts in the past weeks to hold a similar meeting at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo failed because of differences between opposition groups.
The death toll is rising daily as the conflict becomes increasingly militarized. Fighting also has left several rebel strongholds facing dire conditions.
Douma's residents suffer from daily shelling as well as shortages of food, electricity and running water, according to the Observatory. It also cited a shortage of cooking gas that has prevented people from cooking food since the latest campaign began on June 21.
The Observatory said about 100 families, mostly women and children, remain in Douma as men had to flee because of waves of arrests. Dozens of wounded people also are holed up in shelters and need urgent treatment after troops took over the main hospital in the area and damaged it, the Observatory said.
"Many of the wounded have died because of bad medical conditions," the Observatory said.
In other violence Saturday, a car bomb exploded in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, damaging a government building but causing no casualties since the building was closed for the weekend, according to SANA.
Activists also reported shelling by government troops and clashes between rebels and government forces in the central provinces of Hama and Homs, the eastern region of Deir el-Zour as well as Idlib and Aleppo to the north. Scores were reported killed in violence Saturday.
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