, DAMASCUS, Jul 18 – More than 60 soldiers were Wednesday reported killed as rebels pressed their offensive to capture Damascus, upping the stakes ahead of a Security Council vote on a resolution threatening sanctions on Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said at least 20 government soldiers died on Tuesday in Damascus clashes with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and that between 40 and 50 were killed the previous day.
Columns of black smoke rose over the capital on Wednesday as the Local Coordination Committees, which organises anti-regime protests on the ground, reporting fighting in several districts.
The Qaboon neighbourhood was bombarded during the night and pounded again on Wednesday morning, the LCC said, as was Barzeh neighbourhood, and sustained gunfire was heard.
It also said there was less traffic than normal in the city where fighting has raged since Sunday, with the rebels announcing a full-scale offensive dubbed “the Damascus volcano and earthquakes of Syria.”
Regime forces and the FSA — defected soldiers and civilians who have taken up arms — clashed at dawn in the Al-Midan and Zahira districts of Damascus as well as at Assali south of the city, the LCC said.
Rebel forces on Tuesday said the battle to “liberate” Damascus had begun, as heavy fighting raged across the city with the regime using helicopter gunships in the capital for the first time.
As the fighting inched closer to the regime’s nerve centre, FSA spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine said “victory is nigh” and the struggle would go on until the city was conquered.
“We have transferred the battle from Damascus province to the capital. We have a clear plan to control the whole of Damascus. We only have light weapons, but it’s enough.”
“Expect surprises,” Saadeddine added.
An army officer in Damascus, however, told AFP that troops have “the situation under control” and were “chasing the terrorists seeking refuge in apartments and mosques.”
The source said “battles raged” in Qaboon, “where the majority of rebels were,” adding that “33 terrorists were killed, 15 were wounded and 145 were arrested,” referring to rebels.
Syria’s opposition, meanwhile, vowed to seek new ways to confront Assad if the UN Security Council fails in a vote expected later Wednesday to pass a resolution threatening sanctions.
Syria’s main ally Russia — which has vowed to veto a Western-backed proposal calling for sanctions — saw its own proposal rejected on Tuesday by Britain, France, the United States, Germany and Portugal, diplomats said.
— Veto by Russia and China expected —
“Barring a last-minute surprise, we should now go for a vote on Wednesday and we expect a veto by Russia and China,” the UN envoy of a Western nation said on Tuesday on condition of anonymity because talks were still going on.
Representatives of the Syrian National Council (SNC) — an umbrella opposition group — met ambassadors from the 15-nation Security Council, including Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin, to press them to back sanctions.
The SNC warned that it would seek alternative ways to defend civilians if the Security Council does not threaten sanctions over the government’s brutal crackdown in a conflict activists say has killed more than 17,000 people.
Basma Kodmani, the SNC’s head of foreign affairs, said the Western-backed resolution was “a very last chance for breathing life” into the repeatedly violated peace plan of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
“Should the current attempts fail, the Syrian National Council will explore other alternatives with international and regional friends in order to provide humanitarian protection to the Syrian people,” Kodmani told a news conference.
Russia and China have already vetoed two UN resolutions that hinted at sanctions.
The Syrian opposition and its Western supporters had hoped for some sign of a breakthrough from a Moscow meeting between Annan and President Vladimir Putin, but none came.
Russia has also proposed a new version of its resolution on the future of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). Russia was trying to be “accommodating,” said its deputy UN ambassador Alexander Pankin.
“There is nothing new in it,” the Western envoy responded.
The Western-backed resolution calls on the Security Council to consider sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if Assad’s forces do not withdraw heavy weapons from Syrian cities within 10 days.
The UNSMIS mandate ends on Friday, and the Western nations’ proposal would renew the mission for only 45 days.
The Russian draft would renew it for three months, but would not back it up with international action.
Ahead of the vote, UN chief Ban Ki-moon held talks in Beijing on Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao as he seeks to press China to back tougher action against Assad’s regime.
Ban has already urged China to use its influence to back Annan, who is calling on the Security Council to order “consequences” for any failure to carry out his six-point plan.
The Observatory, meanwhile, said at least 93 people were killed nationwide on Tuesday, among them 48 civilians.