The Arab League on Saturday halted its observer mission in Syria because of escalating violence that has killed nearly 100 people in the past three days, as pro-Assad forces battled dissident soldiers in suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus in the most intense fighting yet so close to the capital.
The rising bloodshed has added urgency to attempts by Arab and Western countries to end the 10 months of violence that has killed at least 5,400 people, according to U.N. estimates, as Assad seeks to crush persistent protests demanding an end to his rule.
The United Nations is holding talks on a resolution on Syria and this week will discuss an Arab peace plan aimed at ending the crisis. But the initiatives face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of the peace plan, which it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar vowed that the crackdown will continue, telling families of security members killed in the past months that security forces "will continue their struggle to clean Syria's soil of the outlaws."
Government forces launched a heavy assault on a string of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, aiming to uproot protesters and dissident soldiers who have joined the opposition, activists said.
Troops in tanks and armored personnel carriers attacked the suburbs of Kfar Batna, Saqba, Jisreen and Arbeen, said the Local Coordination Committees activist network and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Dissident troops were fighting back, they said.
In a nearby suburb, Douma, gunmen ambushed a bus carrying army officers, said the state-run news agency SANA, calling the attackers "terrorists." It said seven officers were killed.
The Observatory for Human Rights said at least 36 people were killed across the country Saturday, while the Local Coordination Committees said 20 died, half of them in Homs province, which has been one of the areas hit hardest by government crackdowns. The new deaths come after two days of bloody turmoil killed at least 74 people.
The month-old Arab League observer mission in Syria had come under widespread criticism for failing to bring a halt to the regime's crackdown. Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia pulled out of the mission Tuesday, asking the U.N. Security Council to intervene.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the organization decided to halt the observers' work immediately because of the increasing violence, until the League's council can meet to decide the mission's fate.
He criticized Damascus for the spike in bloodshed, saying the regime has "resorted to escalating the military option in complete violation of [its] commitments" to end the crackdown. He said the victims of the violence have been "innocent citizens."
Syria's state-run news agency quoted an unnamed official saying Damascus "regrets and is surprised" by the Arab League decision after Syria agreed to extend the observers mission for another month.
The official said the halt aims "to pressure the talks in order to call for external intervention in Syria's internal affairs," referring to the U.N. talks.
Elaraby's deputy, Ahmed Ben Heli, said the 100 observers will remain in Damascus while their mission is "re-evaluated."
Elaraby and the prime minister of Qatar were set to leave for New York today to seek U.N. support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plan calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.
Syria has rejected the proposal, saying it violates its sovereignty.
Elaraby had been due to travel Saturday, but his trip was pushed back to today with no explanation.
The U.N. Security Council began closed-door negotiations Friday on a new Arab-European draft resolution aimed at resolving the crisis, but Russia's envoy said he could not back the current language.
Any resolution faces strong opposition from China and Russia, and both nations have veto power.