* Heaviest campaign against rebels since drawing close to
* Russia tells rebels to seek dialogue to stop fighting
* Assad's troops remain entrenched in central Damascus
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Jan 13 Government forces killed at least
36 people, 14 of them children, in a bombardment of rebel-held
areas on the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday, Syrian opposition
Video footage showed women weeping over the dismembered
bodies of children strewn across a field in Eastern Ghouta, near
an air defence base on the edge of the town of Muleiha, 5 km (3
miles) east of Damascus.
The air, rocket and artillery campaign is the heaviest since
rebels overran a helicopter base and missile base near Damascus
two months ago and encroached on the main international airport,
inching steadily closer to the capital, the sources said.
Russia urged the rebels to make counter-proposals to those
made by President Bashar al-Assad in a recent speech to start a
dialogue that could end the fighting.
"If I were in the opposition's shoes, I would come up with
my ideas in response on how to establish a dialogue," Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday.
"President Assad came out with initiatives aimed at inviting
all opposition members to dialogue. Yes, these initiatives
probably do not go far enough. Probably they will not seem
serious to some, but they are proposals," Interfax news agency
quoted Lavrov as saying.
Muleiha is the last major fortification in the area east of
Damascus not yet to have fallen to the rebels. Assad's core
troops and security personnel, mostly belonging to his minority
Alawite sect, are entrenched in the capital.
"God is greater than you, Bashar," one activist says in the
video as a youth carries the torso of a child. At least three of
the dead were women, opposition sources said.
The footage was taken by activists and could not be
Activist Yasmine al-Shami, speaking by phone from Damascus,
said residential areas around Muleiha and in the working-class
suburbs of Hazzeh, Kfar Batna and Douma were being heavily hit.
REGIME "GONE MAD"
"The regime has gone mad with bombardment today. Footage
that has been coming in is heartbreaking. Among the dead is a
mother, Heba al-Lahham, and her three children, who were playing
in a field in Hazzeh," she said.
A report by the opposition Damascus Media Centre said rebels
had been attacking the Muleiha base with rocket-propelled
grenades and mortars for five days, and the army had fired over
600 rockets on the town in response.
"The base has a large numbers of tanks and armour and
stockpiles of ammunition. There is information that the Free
Syrian Army has destroyed five tanks and one armoured vehicle,"
the report said.
A member of the group said Assad's forces were pounding
civilian areas to try to weaken support for the rebels.
"This is the last base standing in the east between the
rebels and Damascus. It is a huge compound and the regime is
bombarding heavily to keep the rebels from mounting a concerted
offensive to take it over," he said.
A commander in Liwa al-Islam, one of several rebel brigades
fighting in the area, said the compound was well defended.
"Our objective is to take it, but it will not be immediate,"
The rebel accounts could not be independently confirmed and
there were no state media reports of the fighting on Sunday.
Loyalist troops have been relying on air power and artillery
and rockets stationed on Qasioun Mountain in Damascus and nearby
bases to keep in check rebels who have taken over a series of
Sunni Muslim suburbs ringing the city.
Rebels have been building up supply lines in Eastern Ghouta
for months but still lack the numbers and heavy weapons to storm
Damascus, where mostly 70,000 Alawite troops are estimated to be
REBELS TO "THINK TWICE" BEFORE ADVANCING
"Even if Muleiha falls, the rebels will think twice before
advancing on central areas in Damascus," said an opposition
campaigner in Damascus, after spending several days with the
fighters in Eastern Ghouta.
"They have seen how Assad responded before, by destroying
whole neighbourhoods with artillery."
Assad's speech a week ago was greeted with disappointment by
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while the United States
dismissed it. Syrian rebels described the speech as a renewed
declaration of war.
But Russia, which has shielded Damascus from more
international pressure to end the bloodshed, said Assad's ideas
should be taken into account.
State-run Itar-Tass quoted Lavrov as saying that rebel
statements that Assad must leave power before any talks can
happen "make it impossible to begin a dialogue."
"If one makes the removal of the Syrian president a
condition, the price of that approach is more and more victims,
and those who support that approach must bear the
responsibility," he said.