BEIRUT — Heavy government shelling of rebel positions near the Syrian capital killed 16 people on Saturday, activists said, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lobbied European allies to back Washington’s proposed military action against the ruling regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the mortar and artillery fire on the Moldokhiya agricultural area south of Damascus killed 14 rebels. A child and another civilian also died in the shelling, it added.
The group also reported heavy fighting between rebels and troops loyal to President Bashar Assad around the Christian village of Maaloula northeast of Damascus. The rebel advance into the area this week was reportedly spearheaded by al-Qaida-linked fighters, exacerbating fears among Syrians and religious minorities in particular that Islamic extremists are playing an increasingly important role in the rebellion.
Fighters from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also have participated in battles around Maaloula, destroying two government checkpoints near the town earlier this week, according to a statement by the main opposition coalition on Friday.
The fighting comes as President Barack Obama’s administration pressed ahead with efforts to win congressional backing and international support for military strikes against Syria over an alleged chemical attack in August outside Damascus. The U.S. says Assad’s forces fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin on rebel-held areas near the capital before dawn on Aug. 21, killing at least 1,429 people. Other estimates put the death toll from the attack at more than 500.
Obama, back in Washington after a trip to Europe that included a two-day visit to Russia to attend a Group of 20 summit, will intensify his efforts to sell a skeptical Congress and a war-weary American public on a military strike against Syria.
A passionate debate is already underway in Congress and the administration’s lobbying campaign culminates Tuesday, the evening before a critical vote on the possible Syria action is expected in the Senate. Obama will address the nation from the White House that night to make his case for military action.