BEIRUT – Syrian forces broadened an offensive against opposition fighters in three Damascus suburbs Friday in an apparent attempt to crush pockets of rebellion near the capital less than a week before an internationally sponsored cease-fire is to go into effect, activists said.
Troops conducted raids in the suburbs of Saqba and Douma following overnight clashes with army defectors in Saqba and the nearby suburb of Arbeen, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said three members of the military were killed.
Plumes of smoke rose above Saqba, and activists said regime forces torched at least one house.
Tanks patrolled deserted streets in the sprawling Douma district, about 8 miles outside Damascus, said activist Mohammed Saeed. Snipers set up positions atop a 12-story medical building.
Troops had entered Douma on Thursday in what activists described as one of the most violent raids near the capital since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began more than a year ago.
In other fighting, regime forces struck the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the central city of Homs, with heavy machine-guns and mortars, the Observatory said. Ground troops later tried to push their way into the city, clashing with opposition fighters, the group said. Troops have been laying a siege to Rastan since rebels took control of it in late January.
Government troops also shelled three neighborhoods in Homs, according to the Observatory.
A cease-fire is to take hold by 6 a.m. on Thursday, according to a plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the special U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria. However, escalating fighting has dimmed hopes that violence will end soon. The U.N. says the fighting has claimed more than 9,000 lives.
Assad last week accepted the truce deal, which calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday. However, Western leaders have cast doubt on his intentions, suggesting he is playing for time and is not serious about the Annan plan which is to pave the way for talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution.
Plans for the cease-fire are in jeopardy, the U.N.-Arab League joint envoy to Syria Kofi Annan told the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, shortly after the U.N. Security Council formally endorsed Mr. Annan's peace plan.
"Clearly the violence is still continuing at alarming levels daily," Mr. Annan, said via video-link from Geneva. "Military operations have not stopped."
Mr. Annan said Syria's government had written him to say that armed groups were still attacking the state, but that the government had begun withdrawing troops from Idlib, Deraa and Zabadan ahead of the deadline.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday that the crisis is getting worse
"Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating," Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. "The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically."
Opposition activists say they believe Assad's regime is stepping up attacks to gain ground ahead of a truce.
The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal contributed to this report.