Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad were mounting a desperate counter-offensive last night as they battled army defectors who had gained control of suburbs around Damascus, just five miles from the presidential palace.
With Syria's 10-month uprising inching closer to the seat of Baathist rule, President Assad's generals deployed tanks and artillery to claw back control of villages east of the capital.
The fighting came amid a fresh diplomatic attempt to stem the bloodshed, with the British and French foreign secretaries heading to the UN in New York to try to press a new resolution. Moscow, meanwhile, offered to host talks between the regime and the rebels, although the main opposition body rejected the proposal.
In Damascus, former soldiers now fighting with the Free Syrian Army were reportedly driven into retreat under heavy gunfire, with rebels saying at least 15 people had been killed as they pulled back from Saqba and Kfar Batna. Two other suburbs, Ein Tarma and Hamouriyeh, were also reported to have been wrested back from the opposition forces. "Street fighting has been raging since dawn," one rebel soldier told the Reuters news agency. "The sound of gunfire is everywhere."
There were also reports of heavy shelling in the central city of Homs, as speculation grew that Mr Assad is frantically trying to bolster his position prior to talks at the UN beginning today.
William Hague was due to arrive in New York with his French counterpart to press the UN Security Council to pursue a peace plan sponsored by the Arab League, whose monitoring mission has been put on ice as the violence escalates. The plan calls for Mr Assad to hand power to a deputy and create a unity government, but Damascus – which blames the unrest on terrorists and "armed groups" – has rejected the move.
Britain and France also have to contend with the opposition of veto-wielding Russia. The Kremlin, wary of rubber-stamping a "Libya solution" which could lead to Western intervention, has said it will block any proposal which could lead to military action. Russia's foreign minister said yesterday that the Syrian government had agreed to Kremlin-brokered negotiations, but opposition officials said there would be no dialogue until Mr Assad agreed to step down.
Moscow's stance was yesterday condemned by David Cameron. A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: "Russia can no longer explain blocking the UN and providing cover for the regime's brutal repression."
The UN says at least 5,000 civilians have been killed over the past 10 months. Human rights groups said at least 14 people were killed yesterday in Homs. The Local Co-Ordination Committees, a group of activists which works to publicise the crisis, also claimed a family of six – four children and their parents – had been found dead in a district of the city. All had been killed by gunfire, the group claimed.
According to Sana, Syria's state news agency, six soldiers were killed when a gas pipeline was blown up near Deraa.