BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian regime forces shelled two central Damascus districts Wednesday before troops backed by tanks swept through to carry out house-to-house raids, killing at least 35 suspected rebels, in a major flare-up of fighting in the Syrian capital, activists said.
In a particularly hard-hit northern district, activists said they discovered dozens of bodies that appeared to have been shot execution-style. Such gruesome reports have become increasingly common in recent months as the civil war has taken on heavy sectarian undertones.
The capital is one of many fronts President Bashar Assad's regime is struggling to contain as the 17-month-old rebellion against his rule gains strength.
Government forces are also engaged in a major battle for control of the northern city of Aleppo as well as smaller scale operations in the country's south, east and center.
On the diplomatic front, a senior U.N. official said Iran's arms supplies to Syria violated U.N. sanctions. France also indicated it has provided the rebels with communication and protection equipment but cautioned against foreign intervention without a U.N. mandate.
A prominent opposition figure, meanwhile, rejected as "more lies" comments by a senior Syrian official that Damascus would be willing to discuss Assad's resignation but only after the opposition agreed to join in negotiating a peaceful settlement.
"As for his resignation, making his resignation a condition for dialogue effectively makes holding such a dialogue impossible," said the official, Deputy Foreign Minister Qadri Jamil. "During the negotiating process any issues can be discussed, and we are ready to discuss even this issue."
Reached in Turkey, Adib Shishakly of the Syrian National Council, a key umbrella opposition group, said: "It's the first time that we hear such talk, but it's difficult to believe. We have grown accustomed to the regime's lies."
Around dawn Wednesday, regime forces in Damascus rained mortar shells on the upscale Kafar Soussa area — home to the foreign ministry, the prime minister's office and several foreign embassies — and adjacent Nahr Eishah, activists said.
Government troops appeared to be shelling the districts from the Qasioun mountain overlooking the capital, a Damascus resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The attacks may have been designed to kill or capture rebel mortar teams who have used the two neighborhoods in recent days to target the city's strategically located Mazzeh military airport, activists said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 24 people were killed in Kafar Soussa on Wednesday and fierce battles were raging in an area just outside the neighborhood.
An activist in Kafar Soussa reached on Skype corroborated the Observatory's findings. He also spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals. The reports could not be independently verified.
Earlier, an activist who only wanted to be identified by the name Bassam for fear of retribution, said as many as 22 tanks stormed Kafar Soussa with about 20 soldiers on foot behind each one. He spoke via Skype from central Damascus.
Bassam and the Observatory also reported heavy government shelling of Nahr Eishah early Wednesday. They said regime forces then searched houses for rebels. Bassam said as many as 12 people were killed in Nahr Eishah, while the Observatory put the death toll at eight, saying they were all men shot dead by troops.
Amateur videos posted by activists on the Internet showed tanks rumbling into Nahr Eishah, kicking up a cloud of dust as the sound of gunfire is heard in the background. The authenticity of the videos could not be verified.