Middle East

Syrian army returns to Damascus suburbs

The Syrian army has regained control of some Damascus suburbs recently held by rebel forces, reports say.

Huge deployments of troops and tanks were used, and the suburb of Saqba is still under bombardment, activists say.

Opposition groups say six people have been killed in the city, with another 13 dead across the country.

French Foreign Minister Alan Juppe is due to travel to New York on Tuesday to press the UN Security Council to take action.

The Arab League suspended its observer mission on Saturday amid the upsurge of violence.

Correspondents say the league's decision has put the focus back on the UN body to pass a tough resolution.

Defiance continues

At least 26 people were reportedly killed this weekend around Damascus in what activists say is the fiercest fighting around the capital during the 10 month-uprising.

About 60 people were killed across the country on Sunday - a day after the Arab League suspended its month-old monitoring mission.

Meanwhile more than 50 military funerals were held over the weekend, for members of the security forces killed as armed attacks on them are stepped up.

The BBC and other international media are severely restricted inside Syria and none of the reports have been independently confirmed.

Reports say that on Sunday troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stormed the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where large anti-government protests have taken place.

One activist, Kamal, told Reuters news agency the rebel Free Syrian Army had made a tactical withdrawal.

"Regime forces have re-occupied the suburbs and started making house-to-house arrests," he said.

But the BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says such deployments have failed to stem defiance in other parts of Syria, and recent days have seen many people killed in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deraa and elsewhere.

The latest army offensive started on Saturday in suburbs where the Free Syrian Army had taken up positions - including Kfar Batna, Saqba, Jisreen, and Arbeen.

Activists said more than 2,000 troops and 50 tanks joined the operation on Sunday, barely 5km (three miles) from the city centre.

"It's urban war. There are bodies in the street," said one activist, speaking from Kfar Batna.

On Monday, reports emerged suggesting security forces may have killed senior army defector Lt-Col Hussein Harmoush, one of the first military officers to publicly declare his opposition to Mr Assad last year.

However, the Free Syrian Army, many of whom are based in Turkey, said they could not confirm the death.

Focus on UN

Russia's Foreign Ministry said it had invited Syrian officials and the opposition to meet for talks in Moscow, and that the Syrian authorities had accepted.

But a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council told Reuters it had not yet received any such invitation, and would turn down the offer in any case.

Meanwhile, Syria's state news agency reported that a gas pipeline which runs from the coast to the centre of the country was blown up near Tal Kalakh, close to the border with Lebanon.

The news agency blamed "terrorists" for the attack, the latest of several in recent months.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is to travel to New York on Tuesday to "to persuade the Security Council to assume its responsibilities faced with the Syrian regime's worsening crimes against humanity", said Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the ministry.

At least 5,400 have been killed since the unrest began, according to the UN.

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