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Syrian army repulses rebels near capital

Syrian forces pushed dissident troops back from the edge of Damascus in heavy fighting Monday, escalating efforts to regain control of the capital's eastern doorstep ahead of key U.N. talks over a draft resolution demanding that President Bashar Assad step aside.

Gunfire and the boom of shelling rang out in several suburbs on Damascus' outskirts that have come under the domination of anti-regime fighters. Gunmen -- apparently army defectors -- were shown firing back in amateur videos posted online by activists. In one video, a government tank on the snow-dusted mountain plateau towering over the capital fired at one of the suburbs below.

As the bloodshed increased, with activists reporting more than 40 civilians killed Monday, Western and Arab countries stepped up pressure on Assad's ally Russia to drop its opposition to the resolution.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British and French foreign ministers were heading to New York to push for backing of the measure during talks today at the United Nations.

"The status quo is unsustainable," Clinton said, saying the Assad regime was preventing a peaceful transition and warning that the resulting instability could "spill over throughout the region."

The draft resolution demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab peace plan that calls for him to hand over power to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government to pave the way for elections.

If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the U.N. Security Council would consider "further measures," a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.

Russia, which in October vetoed the first council attempt to condemn Syria's crackdown, has shown little sign of budging in its opposition.

Pro-Assad forces have fought for three days to take back a string of suburbs on the eastern approach to Damascus, mostly poorer, Sunni-majority communities.

Regime forces also heavily shelled buildings and battled dissidents in the central city of Homs, one of the main hot spots of the uprising, activists said.

The Syrian Human Rights Observatory, which tracks violence through contacts on the ground, reported 28 killed in the city Monday. The Local Coordination Committees put the number at 27.