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Aleppo, Syria - Syrian army forces launched arrest raids and clashed with rebels in the southwestern belt of Damascus on Saturday in what activists say is a renewed bid to crush the insurgency in the capital “once and for all”.
Combat helicopters and tanks also fired on rebel-held areas in the battered northern city of Aleppo, activists and an AFP journalist said, as the government pressed on with its campaign against fighters seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The fresh violence erupted a day after new international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi admitted he was “scared” of the enormity of the task he faces to try to end the escalating conflict, now in its 18th month.
Brahimi, who takes over formally from former UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan next month, held talks with UN leaders on Friday, saying the Syrian people “will be our first masters”.
“We will consider their interests above and before anyone else. We will try to help as much as we can, we will not spare any effort,” added Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat who brokered a 1989 accord that ended Lebanon's civil war.
Annan, a former UN chief, ended his six-month bid to bring peace to Syria, complaining of a lack of international support for his efforts to bring about a ceasefire.
On the ground, troops fired mortar rounds at several areas on the southern outskirts of Damascus following a week of ferocious attacks on rebel positions, intended to deal a crushing blow to insurgents in the capital, activists said.
In the town of Daraya, just south of Damascus, 15 people were killed in the attacks including three children and two women, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding to at death toll of over 100 people in the past four days.
“Security forces have launched a campaign of arrests and residents are anxious and afraid that there will be another civilian massacre” in Daraya, said the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground.
The army claimed to have retaken most of Damascus in late July after some two weeks of intense fighting across the capital's southern belt.
Most rebel Free Syrian Army fighters were forced out into the nearby countryside, but have since then resumed some hit-and-run operations, according to activists.
In Aleppo, activists reported that combat helicopters were strafing rebel pockets while an AFP reporter reported shelling from tanks in at least one district, sending civilians scrambling for safety as exploding shells sent up clouds of smoke and dust.
Long breadlines formed in several neighbourhoods, including Qadi Askar where a fight broke out as people queued in the hot afternoon sun, the correspondent said.
Rebels claimed earlier this week to control 60 percent of Aleppo but the regime has dismissed the claims and said Thursday the army had recaptured three Christian neighbourhoods, where residents are largely pro-Assad.
Opposition fighters said they were digging in for a war of attrition in Aleppo, where the regime had warned last month of “the mother of all battles.”
The Observatory said Friday that August was already the deadliest single month of the conflict with more than 4,000 people killed, from an overall death toll of around 24,500.
The head of the UN observer team, General Babacar Gaye, left Damascus Saturday after the mission officially ended in the face of the intensifying violence and Security Council divisions.
Damascus said this week it was ready to work with Brahimi and voiced hope he could pave the way for “national dialogue” while also suggesting it was ready to discuss Assad's exit as part of any negotiated solution.
A senior Iranian official was in Damascus for talks with Syrian officials, a day after Tehran Ä the regime's staunchest ally Ä
said it would submit a plan for ending the conflict at a Non-Aligned Movement summit next week.
Tehran's initiative comes as its foes in the West seek to ramp up the pressure on Syria, with Washington and London threatening possible action if Damascus uses its chemical weapons and Paris voicing support for a partial no-fly zone.
On the humanitarian front, the United Nations said Friday that the flow of refugees fleeing the fighting has jumped to at least 202,500, about a third of them in Turkey which has warned it cannot cope with many more.
The UN refugee agency also warned that tensions in neighbouring Lebanon Ä where fighting this week between rival pro-and anti-Assad communities in Tripoli has left 15 people dead Ä was complicating efforts to help refugees there.
In Syria, at least 62 people were killed nationwide on Saturday, according to the Observatory, which has a network of activists, doctors and other sources on the ground but whose information cannot be independently confirmed.
Meanwhile, the body of a veteran Japanese war reporter killed this week while covering the fighting in Aleppo was flown home on Saturday.
Mika Yamamoto, 45, was the fourth foreign journalist to have been killed in Syria since March 2011 and the first to have died in Aleppo, which has borne the brunt of the conflict since fierce fighting erupted there last month.
American freelance journalist Austin Tice has also been missing for more than a week, his current employer the Washington Post said.
Meanwhile, activists said Saturday that an anti-regime television actor has been arrested, a day after an independent filmmaker disappeared. - Sapa-AFP