Beirut: Syrian troops flushed out rebels from a key Damascus suburb on Saturday, regaining control of a key area just outside the capital after a 10-day assault that left dozens dead, hundreds wounded and caused a major humanitarian crisis.
The relentless offensive against Douma forced residents and fighters to flee, leaving a trail of destruction and bodies in the streets, activists said.
The sprawling area on the outskirts of Damascus has been a hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad's regime since the start of the uprising in March 2001. Securing control of the suburb for a sustained period would be a significant triumph for the regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activist Mohammed Saeed said regime forces recaptured Douma late Friday. The latest offensive was the worst of several assaults on the area, the Observatory said.
"The situation in Douma is catastrophic. The suburb is badly destroyed," Saeed said via Skype, adding that he was among dozens of residents who fled on foot through the fields to safer areas for fear of being captured by security forces.
The state-run SANA news agency reported the government was still pursuing "armed terrorist groups" in its effort to "cleanse" Douma, using its term for the rebels, noting that dozens had been killed and their weapons seized.
Central Damascus is an Assad stronghold, but regime forces have battled to control the ring of suburbs and settlements in the surrounding countryside. The Army launches frequent offensives in the suburbs only to see them slip back under rebel control.
Saeed said troops stormed two makeshift hospitals where seriously wounded people were being treated. "The doctors fled and the wounded remained. Their fate is unknown," he said.
The latest violence came as representatives of global and regional powers met on Saturday in an increasingly desperate bid to agree on a peaceful formula to end the bloody crisis in Syria, including Assad's role in a transitional government.
The talks hosted by the United Nations at its European headquarters in Geneva were seen as a last-ditch attempt to salvage the peace plan brokered by the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
Annan seemed confident of his plan a few days ago, but Russia has refused to back a provision that would call for Assad to step down to make way for a unity government, a stance that could torpedo the entire deal.
Annan warned that if nations trying to end the country's violence fail to act they face an international crisis of "grave severity”.