REGULAR SYRIAN army troops yesterday moved into the remaining rebel strongholds of Bab Amr near the central city of Homs and the town of Zabadani near the Lebanese border.
The army conducted sweeps for insurgents in villages in the province of Deraa, where the uprising began nearly a year ago.
A contact in Zabadani said the army had agreed to a ceasefire, captured some rebel fighters and allowed others to escape. Troops were conducting house-to-house searches in the town.
He said the army was under strict orders to deal properly with town residents who stayed during several weeks of clashes. Women soldiers had been assigned to enter homes where only women and children were present.
Many inhabitants of Zabadani fled to the nearby town of Bludan where some have moved into Damascenes’ summer homes. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent society and International Committee of the Red Cross mounted two aid convoys to Bludan to provide food and other necessities, including diapers and formula for babies.
The Red Crescent and Red Cross announced their volunteers were “distributing food, medical supplies, blankets and hygiene consumables to thousands of people” in Homs.
The fall at the weekend of the district of Inshaat at Homs, adjacent to Bab Amr, rendered untenable the position of rebel forces in Bab Amr, the hub of the insurgency in this region. The insurgents have mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and heavy machine guns, but cannot match the army’s firepower. Rebels have reportedly regrouped in Rastan, west of Bab Amr.
Sources on the ground in Homs were contradicted by the opposition London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said the army began shelling Bab Amr before dawn. However, Observatory reports about clashes in Deraa have been confirmed by informants in affected areas.
Opposition activists say at least 500 people have been killed in fighting in the Homs area over the past 10 days. Diplomatic sources estimate most of the fatalities were among army, security force and insurgent group personnel than among civilians.
The Syrian government has firmly rejected a proposal adopted on Sunday by Arab League ministers for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force and the initiation of formal contacts with the Syrian opposition, particularly the Syrian National Council – a coalition of exiled groups dominated by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Council chairman Burhan Ghalioun, an academic based in Paris, welcomed the league’s stand as a “first step” in achieving the overthrow of the regime.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has said a ceasefire has to be in place before peacekeepers could be deployed. He visited Damascus a week ago with the aim of promoting dialogue between the regime and opposition, a proposition rejected by the latter.
Al-Watan, a daily close to the government, castigated the Arabs for adopting the unexpected initiative, which wrong-footed Damascus and its allies in Moscow and Beijing.
The feeling here is that the league is constantly moving the goal posts to isolate Damascus and boost pressure on the government. Although the emirate of Qatar, chairman of the league’s committee on Syria, has taken the lead in recent months, Saudi Arabia emerged as the prime mover of the agenda during Sunday’s ministerial league meeting.
Arab and western states are set to call upon the UN General Assembly to adopt the latest league plan and to press Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to devolve power on his deputy, form a unity government and hold elections.
The Syrian government rejects the call for Dr Assad to delegate authority and argues it is planning to hold a referendum on the new constitution next month and parliamentary elections in June.