Hopes of a truce being implemented in war-torn Syria during this week's Muslim Eid holidays are "slim," the Arab League said on Monday, as rebels and troops engaged in fierce clashes in Damascus and on northern battlefields.
But the United Nations held on to the hope that the two warring sides will observe a truce during the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday which begins on Friday, saying it had plans to assemble a peacekeeping force if a ceasefire takes hold.
"We are getting ourselves ready to act if it is necessary and a mandate is approved," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said in New York.
He warned, however, that the plans would need the approval of the 15-nation Security Council which has been divided on the 19-month conflict.
UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he contacted political opposition leaders inside and outside Syria and armed groups in the country and "found them to be very favourable" to the idea of a truce.
But Arab League deputy secretary general Ahmed Ben Helli dashed those hopes.
"Unfortunately, hope for implementing the truce during Eid al-Adha is slim so far," he told AFP on the sidelines of the World Energy Forum in Dubai.
"The signs, both on the ground and by the government... do not point to the presence of any real will" to implement a truce.
In Damascus, two bombs exploded on Monday evening after a day of pitched battles between troops and rebels on the edge of the capital, in the northern city of Aleppo and in the northwestern rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 84 people, including 22 civilians, were killed across the country, adding to a toll of more than 34,000 people killed since the anti-regime revolt erupted in March last year.
Brahimi said a temporary truce could be the first step to a more permanent peace, and has called on "every Syrian" to embrace a truce.
President Bashar al-Assad met Brahimi on Sunday and said he was "open to any sincere efforts seeking to find a political solution to the crisis based on respecting Syria's sovereignty and rejecting any foreign interference."
-- Pitched battles near Maaret al-Numan --
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As they met a bomb attack on Bab Touma, the main Christian quarter of Damascus, killed 13 people.
Assad's ruling party's mouthpiece, Al-Baath newspaper, said this was the rebel response to Brahimi's appeal for a truce.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned Sunday's bombing and urged "all sides" in the conflict "to avoid attacks which indiscriminately kill and injure civilians."
But there was no sign of a let-up in the violence.
The Observatory said clashes erupted on Monday morning when troops tried to storm the rebel-controlled town of Harasta on the northeastern fringes of Damascus.
Later it reported two bombings in northern Damascus. One exploded under the car of a retired security officer and wounded one person while the other blew up outside a military intelligence building but caused only material damage.
Soldiers and rebels fought fierce clashes near Maaret al-Numan, which rebels seized on October 9, and around an army base in nearby Wadi Daif, said the watchdog.
The clashes were the fiercest yet around the Wadi Daif base, which rebels have besieged for nearly two weeks, it said.
Maaret al-Numan lies along the Aleppo-Damascus highway which serves as a key army supply route.
Fierce machinegun battles also erupted near Aleppo's ancient Umayyad Mosque, as troops fended off rebel attacks on checkpoints, said a military source, adding: "Until now we have kept them at bay, but this is a large attack."
In neighbouring Lebanon, fresh sectarian fighting erupted on Monday between opponents and supporters of the Syrian regime after Friday's killing of a top security official in a massive Beirut car bombing blamed on the Damascus government.
And on the Jordan border, a Jordanian soldier was killed before dawn in a clash with militants trying to enter Syria, Amman's information minister Samih Maaytah told AFP.
Brahimi has warned that the 19-month Syria conflict could spill over and set the region ablaze if no solution is found.