Beirut: Syrian regime forces shelled two Damascus districts on Wednesday before troops backed by tanks swept through to carry out house-to-house raids in search of opposition fighters, killing at least 31 suspected rebels, activists said.
The violence is part of a dramatic surge in fighting over the past month in Damascus, one of many fronts President Bashar al-Assad`s regime is struggling to contain as the 17-month-old rebellion against his rule gains strength. Government forces are also engaged in a major battle for control of the northern city of Aleppo as well as smaller scale operations in the country`s south, east and centre.
Also today, a prominent opposition figure rejected as "more lies" comments by a senior Syrian official that Damascus would be willing to discuss Assad`s resignation but only after the opposition agreed to join in negotiating a peaceful settlement.
"As for his resignation, making his resignation a condition for dialogue effectively makes holding such a dialogue impossible," said the official, Deputy Foreign Minister Qadri Jamil. "During the negotiating process any issues can be discussed, and we are ready to discuss even this issue."
Reached in Turkey, Adib Shishakly of the Syrian National Council, a key umbrella opposition group, said: "It`s the first time that we hear such talk, but it`s difficult to believe. We have grown accustomed to the regime`s lies."
Around dawn today, regime forces in Damascus rained mortars down on the upscale Kafar Soussa neighbourhood and the adjacent Nahr Eishah area of the Syrian capital, activists said. Government troops appeared to be shelling the districts from Qasioun mountain overlooking the capital, a Damascus resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The attacks may have been designed to kill or capture rebel mortar teams who have used the two neighbourhoods in recent days to target the city`s strategically located Mazzeh military airport, activists said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people were killed in Kafar Soussa today and that fierce battles were raging in an area just outside the neighbourhood between the rebels and government troops.
An activist in Kafar Soussa reached on Skype corroborated the observatory`s report. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.
Earlier, an activist who only wanted to be identified by the name Bassam for fear of retribution, said 11 people were killed in Kafar Soussa and that as many as 22 tanks stormed the district with about 20 soldiers on foot behind each one. He spoke via Skype from central Damascus.
Bassam and the observatory also reported heavy government shelling of Nahr Eishah early today. They said regime forces then conducted house-to-house raids in search of rebels.