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Middle East

Impasse at the UN as Russia digs its heels in over Syria

Russia warned the West it was ready to veto UN action on Syria last night, hardening its stance even as reports indicated special forces had been deployed to crush resistance in the rebel-held town of Zabadani, only 20 miles west of Damascus.

With scores more dying in street battles across the country, diplomats in New York were trying to negotiate the passage of a draft resolution calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. The document, which has the backing of the Arab League, also demands that the Baathist regime in Damascus hand over power to an interim unity government.

However, Russia's UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said Moscow would veto any proposal it considered "unacceptable" – a potential blow to diplomats hoping to overcome deep-seated Russian misgivings about the West's intentions in Syria.

The draft Security Council resolution would give Mr Assad 15 days to implement reforms or face "further measures". But Russia, mindful of how Nato intervened in Libya, fears it may be shoehorned into similar action against its allies in Damascus.

Yesterday, there were reports that Mr Assad's generals had deployed special forces, known locally as the intihareen, or "suicide" troops, on account of their die-hard reputation.

According to Rami Abdul Rahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the elite squads blazed a trail of destruction as they wound their way through villages in Wadi Barada, a valley leading up towards the mountain town of Zabadani. At least 21 civilians were killed during yesterday's operation, including five members of the opposition Free Syrian Army and five regular army soldiers.

"Bashar al-Assad is dreaming of regaining control of Syria before Friday," Mr Rahman said.

Troops and tanks now appear to be heading towards Zabadani.