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Syria tries to halt Damascus rebels

Syrian troops have pushed back rebel soldiers from some suburbs on the outskirts of Damascus in an offensive trying to regain control of the capital's eastern doorstep.

President Bashar Assad is intensifying his assault aimed at crushing army defectors and protesters, even as the West tries to overcome Russian opposition and win a new UN resolution against Syria's crackdown on the 10-month-old uprising. Activists reported at least 28 civilians killed today.

Russia insists it will not support any resolution that could enable foreign military intervention in Syria. Instead, it said it is seeking to mediate talks in Moscow between Damascus and the opposition.

It said Assad's government has agreed to participate. The opposition has in the past rejected any negotiations unless violence stops, and there was no immediate word whether any of the multiple groups that make up the anti-Assad camp would attend.

Prime Minister David Cameron urged Moscow to reconsider its stance. "Russia can no longer explain blocking the UN and providing cover for the regime's brutal repression," a spokeswoman for Mr Cameron said.

The British and French foreign ministers were heading to New York for UN talks set for Tuesday as they and Arab countries push for a resolution backing an Arab League peace plan. The proposal calls for Assad to hand his powers over to his vice president and allow the creation of a unity government. Damascus has rejected the proposal.

The United Nations estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria's crackdown since the uprising against Assad's rule began in March. The bloodshed has continued since - with more than 190 killed in the past five days - and the UN says it has been unable to update the figure.

The wide-scale offensive near the capital suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet while most other Syrian cities have slipped into chaos since the uprising began in March.

The violence has gradually approached the capital. In the past two weeks, army dissidents have become more visible, seizing several suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus and setting up checkpoints where masked men wearing military clothing and wielding assault rifles stop motorists and protect anti-regime protests.

Their presence so close to the capital is astonishing in tightly controlled Syria and suggests the Assad regime may either be losing control or setting up a trap for the fighters before going on the offensive.

Meanwhile regime forces bombarded the central city of Homs, which has been one of the cities at the forefront of the uprising.

The Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported that 14 were killed in the city. Another activist group, the Local Co-ordination Committees, put the number at 15. Both also reported the discovery of a family of six - a couple and their four children - who had been killed by gunfire several days earlier in the city's Karm el-Zeitoun district.

-AP

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