Syria troops push back rebels as UN fight looms

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops crushed pockets of rebel soldiers Tuesday on the outskirts of Damascus and the U.N. Security Council took up a draft resolution demanding President Bashar Assad halt the violence and yield power.

The Arab League called on the council to demand an immediate cease-fire in Syria and said that international military action was not being sought.

“We are attempting to avoid any foreign intervention, particularly military intervention” in Syria, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said. “We have always stressed full respect of the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian people.”

Russia, one of Assad’s strongest backers, has signaled it would veto any U.N. action against Damascus, fearing it could open the door to eventual international military involvement, the way an Arab-backed U.N. resolution led to NATO airstrikes in Libya.

Russia has stood by Assad as he tries to crush an uprising that began nearly 11 months ago. In October, Moscow vetoed the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria’s crackdown and has shown little sign of budging in its opposition.

Moscow’s stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defense ties, including weapons sales, with Syria. Russia also rejects what it sees as a a world order dominated by the U.S.

The diplomatic showdown came as Syrian government forces took back control of the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, after rebel soldiers briefly captured the area in a startling advance last week.

The fact that rebels made it to the doorstep of Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power, was a dangerous development for the regime. The military launched a swift offensive Monday and on Tuesday crushed the remaining resistance in Zamalka and Arbeen.

But the suburbs were not entirely quiet. On a government-sponsored media trip, Syrian journalists heard at least seven explosions Tuesday from the eastern suburb of Rankous. It was not clear what caused the blasts.

The U.N. estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown, but has not been able to update the figure. The death toll from Monday’s offensive was around 100 people, making it among the bloodiest days since the uprising began in March, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group.

The bloodshed in Syria has increased in recent days as Western and Arab countries stepped up pressure on Russia over Security Council action.

The draft resolution demands Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab peace plan that calls for him to hand over power to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government to clear the way for elections.

If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider “further measures,” a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.

A French official said the draft U.N. resolution has a “comfortable majority” of support from 10 of the Security Council’s 15 members, meaning Russia or China would have to use their veto power to stop it.

Russia had agreed to negotiate on the draft, said the official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department rules.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who was planning to attend the Security Council meeting, ruled out foreign military action.

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