Violence Escalates Outside Syria's Capital

Syrian government troops battle to regain control of communities on the fringes of Damascus.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with escalating violence in Syria. Forces loyal to the Syrian government are mounting an offensive. The move comes as an increasing number of army defectors are fighting back. Over the weekend, these defectors gained control of some suburbs surprisingly close to the Syrian capital, Damascus, but NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Beirut that government troops are now storming those towns.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Activists and witnesses in Syria say government troops have stormed into the east of Damascus where they faced fierce resistance from rebel fighters before those fighters fell back. Witnesses say the rebels, armed only with rifles, are no match for the much more powerful army.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: This video from the town of Kafar Batna shows smoke rising from residential areas as shelling and gunfire echo in the streets. Witnesses say security forces are going house to house and rounding people up and arresting them.

Rebels had been manning checkpoints, claiming to be protecting unarmed protesters. These rebel checkpoints reached within just a few miles of Damascus before government troops launched the offensive. The fighting comes as the Arab League has decided to suspend the work of its monitors in Syria. The monitors had been in the country to determine whether Syria was complying with the peace plan, but they deemed the situation too dangerous to continue. The past two days have been some of the most violent yet in the 10-month antigovernment uprising that's beginning to look more and more like a civil war.

The United Nations says at least 5,400 people have died since March. The U.N. Security Council will meet tomorrow to discuss a new draft resolution on Syria. That draft supports an Arab League initiative calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abdicate power to a deputy, who would then help form a new national unity government. But Russia says it will not support a measure that basically calls for regime change. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, urged Russia to change its position.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: We have seen the consequences of neglect and inaction by this council over the course of the last 10 months, but we certainly think that it's vitally important for the council to stand up and support a process that the neighboring states all have come to us and said please support.

MCEVERS: Russia, today, proposed that members of the Syrian government and opposition should come to Moscow to negotiate an end to the crisis. The opposition said it refuses to negotiate with a killer. Rice said the time has passed for such negotiations.

RICE: More and more innocent people are dying. We've seen horrific reports of women and children and their bodies on display as a consequence of government sponsored violence. That needs to end.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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