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At least 66 killed across Syria as troops battle to retake Damascus suburbs

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Al-Arabiya

Scores of people were reported dead in Syria on Sunday as renewed violence across the country erupted in Damascus, Idlib and Aleppo, according to rights activists.

At least 66 people, including 26 civilians, were on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The London-based rights group said 26 soldiers, five other members of the security forces, nine army deserters were also among those killed as the regime cracked down on protesters and rebels.

Security forces killed eight people, including a nine-year-old child, in the restive Homs region of central Syria, and shot dead another five in the northwestern region of Idlib, the Observatory said.

Also among those killed were six civilians caught up in military operations and clashes in the Damascus area, the activists said in statements received in Nicosia, and one person was shot dead in the Juber district of the capital itself.

The watchdog said the regime soldiers were killed in three separate attacks in the Idlib and Damascus regions.

Earlier, it reported fierce clashes between regime troops and deserters in the Ghuta area near the capital. Three civilians were killed, it said, adding that government forces were backed by 32 tanks and 50 armored cars.

There were also reports of clashes in a town near Damascus airport which led to the temporary closure of the airport roadway, according to Al Arabiya TV.

Opposition groups also confirmed to Al Arabiya that tanks and security barriers surrounded the city of Aleppo.

Around 2,000 Syrian troops backed by tanks launched an assault to retake Damascus suburbs from rebels on Sunday, activists said, a day after the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria because of worsening violence.

They said 19 civilians and rebel fighters were killed as the soldiers in buses and armored personnel carriers moved in at dawn, along with at least 50 tanks and armored vehicles.

The forces of President Bashar al-Assad pushed into the Ghouta area on the eastern edge of Damascus to take part in an offensive in the suburbs of Saqba, Hammouriya and Kfar Batna.

Tanks advanced into the centre of Saqba and Kfar Batna, the activists said, in a move to flush out fighters who had taken over districts just a few kilometres from Assad's centre of power.

"It's urban war. There are bodies in the street," one activist, speaking from Kfar Batna told Reuters news agency. Activists said 14 civilians and five insurgents from the rebel Free Syrian Army were killed there and in other suburbs.

Army deaths

State news agency SANA reported funerals on Saturday for 28 soldiers and security force members killed by "armed terrorist groups" in Homs, Hama, Deraa, Deir al-Zor and Damascus province.

Another 24 soldiers were reported killed on Sunday. SANA said six soldiers were killed in a bombing southwest of Damascus, while the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 soldiers were killed in two separate attacks by army deserters in the northern province of Idlib.

Faced with mass demonstrations against his rule, Assad launched a military crackdown to subdue the protests. Growing numbers of army deserters and gunmen have joined the demonstrators, increasing instability in the country of 23 million people at the heart of the Middle East.

The insurgency has been gradually approaching the capital, whose suburbs, a series of mainly conservative Sunni Muslim towns bordering old gardens and farmland, known as the al-Ghouta, are home to the bulk of Damascus's population.

One activist reported heavy shelling in the suburb of Saqba, and said the army was facing stiff opposition from rebels.

The Arab League mission was sent in at the end of last year to observe Syria's implementation of the peace plan, which failed to end the fighting. Gulf states withdrew monitors last week, saying the team could not stop the violence.

The United Nations said in December more than 5,000 people had been killed in the protests and crackdown. Syria says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed by militants.

On Friday, the U.N. Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed. Britain and France said they hoped to put it to a vote next week.

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