By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Syrian government shelling in the southern city of Dara left at least 17 dead Saturday, opposition activists said, while fierce clashes were also reported in suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
The fighting in and around Damascus suggested that rebels may be attempting to increase pressure in the capital, long a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad. Sounds of gunfire and explosions were heard in the capital, U.N. observers reported.
The violence underscored the failure so far of a United Nations-brokered peace plan to end bloodshed in Syria, where an uprising that began more than 15 months ago has left at least 10,000 people dead.
A U.N. team on Saturday reported finding six burned buses in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, where rebels were said to have targeted a power plant. Army soldiers guarded the body of a fallen comrade, the U.N. team reported. A power plant transformer appeared to have been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, the U.N. said.
The government has accused rebels of an extensive campaign of sabotage of power plants, fuel lines and other civilian targets.
Opposition activists say government forces have used shelling as their primary means of clearing rebel-controlled districts in protest cities such as Homs, Hama and Dara. More shelling was reported last week in Homs, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an antigovernment group, reported Saturday that shelling of the Balad district of Dara overnight had killed 17 people, mostly women and children.
Dara has symbolic importance because it is where the protest movement began in March 2011. The protests have evolved into an armed insurgency that threatens the more than 40-year rule by Assad’s family.
There was no immediate comment on the reported clashes in Dara and Damascus from the Syrian government. Syrian authorities have said they are fighting “terrorists,” including Islamic militants, and have denied targeting civilians.
The government did report fierce fighting in Haffah, an insurgent stronghold in coastal Latakia province. It accused rebels of committing “heinous crimes against civilians,” including setting fire to a hospital. Dozens have been killed in that region in recent days, according to opposition activists.
The official Syrian news agency also reported the funerals Saturday of 57 security personnel and civilian “martyrs,” an unusually large number that may provide a glimpse of the toll the conflict is taking on the military, police and security forces. Syria says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed since the conflict began.
Diplomats have been seeking a way to revive the six-point peace plan crafted by special U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, who has acknowledged that the plan is not working. The United States and allies backing Assad’s removal are said to be considering a new round of sanctions against Assad’s government at the U.N. Security Council.
But Russia, which has twice vetoed measures targeting Assad’s government, has said it is against sanctions and has held out hope that Annan’s plan can be revived. Moscow has called for an international conference on Syria to include many interested nations, among them Iran, a neighbor and staunch ally of Assad.
Washington has objected to Iran’s inclusion, saying Iran has helped foment repression in Syria.