DAMASCUS, Oct 2: The Syrian army rained shells on rebel bastions in and around Damascus on Tuesday and sent extra troops to second city Aleppo, as a watchdog said the death toll from 18 months of violence now tops 31,000.

The fresh offensive came hours after UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Damascus to show compassion to its people and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said a political solution was still possible if the West and Gulf states halted support for the rebels.A bombardment by the army of the rebel-held Harasta district in the eastern suburbs of the capital killed at least 11 people, two of them women, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

At least five civilians were killed in shelling in the city of Douma, northeast of Damascus, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Amateur video posted by activists showed several vehicles carrying women driving off under cover of darkness in what they said was an exodus of Douma residents.

The army also bombarded a string of other towns outside Damascus, the Observatory said.

Activist network the Local Coordination Committees said more than 100 shells fell on Zabadani, once a resort destination known for its mild weather and scenic views but now devastated by the civil war ravaging Syria.

The official daily Al-Baath said on Tuesday that the “end of security operations throughout Damascus province” was approaching.

Government forces “have destroyed many weapons caches and seized large quantities of ammunition and equipment... which indicates that the end of security operations throughout Damascus province is approaching,” the newspaper said.

On July 18, rebels carried out a massive bombing on a complex in Damascus, killing four security chiefs, including Assad’s brother-in-law and the defence minister.

Since then, regime forces have pushed the rebels to the outskirts of the capital but have lost control of several border crossings and are battling to fully retake Syria’s second city of Aleppo, which has been the focal point of the conflict since mid-July.

Several districts of Aleppo were bombed on Tuesday, the Observatory said, a day after 22 civilians died in the violence ravaging the city of 1.7 million people.

Pro-regime daily Al-Watan said on Tuesday that extra troops were being sent to Aleppo.

“New reinforcements have arrived to support the army... and the armed men (rebels) are now fatigued and have begun to flee to their villages and towns in the province of Aleppo and elsewhere,” the paper said.

“This is a sign of the determination of the Syrian army to win the battle of Aleppo as soon as possible,” it added.—AFP

Fighting at the weekend rocked the city’s centuries-old Unesco-listed souk and sparked a fire which damaged hundreds of shops and dealt a severe economic blow.—AFP

Violence also raged on Tuesday in the southern province of Daraa, the Observatory said. Nine rebels were killed in an explosion at dawn near the Jordanian border. Nine people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in shelling and clashes in a camp for displaced people.

And Turkish troops fired across the Syrian border, killing a member of a Kurdish militia and wounding two others in the first such fatal shooting at the Turkish frontier, the Observatory said.

At least, 31,022 people have now been killed in violence since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule erupted in March last year, according to the Observatory’s figures.

At least 4,727 people died in September alone, including 305 on Sept 26 — the bloodiest single day of the conflict.

On the political front, Mr Ban said after a meeting with Syria’s Muallem at UN headquarters in New York that it was time for Damascus to lower the scale of its offensive against the insurgency.

“He stressed that it was the Syrian people who were being killed every day and appealed to the government of Syria to show compassion to its own people,” a spokesman said.

Muallem, meanwhile, told the UN General Assembly that France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States “clearly induce and support terrorism in Syria with money, weapons and foreign fighters”.

Assad was open to reforms if the violence stopped, the foreign minister said. “We still believe in a political solution as an essential way out of the crisis.”

For this to happen, he said UN members should press for an end to the “arming, financing, harbouring and training of terrorist groups”.

Arab and western governments have in turn accused Damascus ally Iran of arming the regime.

Iraqi officials said they stopped and searched a Syria-bound Iranian cargo plane for weapons on Tuesday, but allowed it to continue after finding no prohibited items.

The UN refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries has more than tripled since June to over 300,000, and by the end of the year that number is expected to more than double again.—AFP


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