Syrian troops recover rebellious Damascus suburb


BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops have regained control of a rebellious Damascus suburb after a 10-day assault that left dozens dead, hundreds wounded and caused a major humanitarian crisis, activists said Saturday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activist Mohammed Saeed said regime forces recaptured Douma outside the capital late Friday. The latest offensive was the worst of several assaults on the area, with dead bodies left in the streets, the Observatory said.

"The situation in Douma is catastrophic. The suburb is badly destroyed," said Saeed 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 government said it was still pursuing "armed terrorist groups" in Douma, noting that dozens of terrorists had been killed and their weapons seized. Authorities routinely refer to rebels in Syria as terrorists.

A report published by state-run SANA news agency said some of the "terrorists" tried to flee but were pursued by troops who killed and wounded a large number of them. SANA said forces would continue their search to "cleanse" Douma.

The suburb has been a hotbed of dissent since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March last year.

Forces loyal to Assad are strong in central Damascus, but have battled to control the ring of suburbs and settlements in the surrounding countryside. The army launches frequent offensives into the suburbs only to see them slip back into 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 tried Saturday to agree on a peaceful formula to end the bloody crisis in Syria, including the role of Assad in a transitional government.

The talks hosted by the United Nations at its European headquarters in Geneva are seen as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the peace plan brokered by the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Annan warned that if nations trying to end the country's violence fail to act they face an international crisis of "grave severity." He said history "will judge us all harshly if we prove incapable of taking the right path today."

Russia's determination to preserve its last remaining ally in the Middle East has collided head-on with the desire by the U.S. and other Western powers to replace Assad with a democracy. Diplomats are growing pessimistic that the U.N.-brokered conference can bridge the Russia-U.S. divide.

Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed as the conflict has becoming 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. Activists said at least 22 people were killed in violence Saturday.

In Egypt, Arab League deputy chief Ahmed ben Heli told reporters that a Syrian opposition meeting will be held Monday in Cairo.

He said more than 200 Syrians representing opposition groups from inside and outside the country have been invited along with foreign ministers from the five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia. Also invited were Annan and envoys from Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey and Tunisia.

They will discuss agreeing on a common vision to deal with the next stage, he said.

The regional and international participation will only be in the opening and closing sessions while the opposition groups alone will discuss the issue for two days.

Previous attempts in the past weeks to hold a similar meeting at the league's headquarters in Cairo failed because of differences between opposition groups.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed next week's meeting.

"In our view the transition must involve representatives of all Syrian communities," he said in Geneva.