BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces retreated Sunday from the center of one of the biggest Damascus suburbs after intense clashes with anti-government army defectors, activists said. It was the second area abandoned by government troops in less than a week as the 10-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad becomes increasingly militarized.
The violence came as Arab foreign ministers began talks in Cairo to review a report by Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, the head of an Arab League observers mission, which technically expired on Thursday.
Arab League officials have said the 22-member organization was likely to extend the mission by a month and increase the number of observers in Syria despite complaints from the Syrian opposition that it has failed to curb the bloodshed in the country.
Members of the Syrian opposition have called for foreign troops to be dispatched to Syria to create safe zones for dissidents.
The opposition has urged the Arab League to refer the Syrian issue to the U.N. Security Council rather than continue trying to resolve it regionally.
Diplomacy has taken on urgency as opponents of Assad's regime and soldiers who switched sides increasingly take up arms and fight back against government forces, raising fears the conflict is veering toward civil war after beginning with largely peaceful protests in March.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights' head Rami Abdul-Rahman said government troops had pulled back early Sunday to a provincial headquarters and a security agency building in the Damascus suburb of Douma after hours of clashes, although they still controlled the entrances. The clashes broke out after Syrian troops opened fire at a funeral on Saturday.
Abdul-Rahman had no information on casualties from the clashes but said security forces at an entrance checkpoint shot dead one man who was passing by on Sunday.
The Observatory said more clashes broke out between defectors and Syrian forces later Sunday "in what appeared to be an attempt to storm" Douma, a heavily populated suburb.
Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso confirmed that security forces had abandoned Douma, but said he had no information about clashes in the area.
Central Damascus has for most of Syria's 10-month uprising been under the tight control of forces loyal to Assad, but its suburbs have witnessed intense anti-regime protests. Abdul-Rahman said it was not clear if the withdrawal was a tactic for the regime forces to regroup and strike back.
Last week, army defectors took control of the mountain town of Zabadani on the western edge of the capital, near the border with Lebanon. Zabadani is still out of government control and army defectors control all its entrances.
Osso said it is highly unlikely defectors are trying to take over Douma because it is easy for the regime to retake residential areas unlike Zabadani where defectors can fight from hideouts in the rugged mountains.
The conflict in Syria has marked the most serious challenge to Assad, who took over from his father in 2000. The U.N. estimates some 5,400 have been killed since it began in March.
Also Sunday, state-run news agency, SANA, said an estimated 5,255 Syrian prisoners have been released over the past week under a recent amnesty, raising the total freed since November to more than 9,000.
On Saturday a string of explosions struck a police truck transporting prisoners in a tense area of northwestern Syria killing at least 14 people, state media and an opposition group said. Government troops also battled defectors in the north in fighting that left 10 people dead.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue