Syrian regime shelling near Damascus kills 16

BEIRUT (AP) — 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.

In Lithuania, Kerry met with European leaders, who have been skeptical about whether any military action against Assad's regime

can be effective.

In a joint statement Saturday, European foreign ministers agreed with the U.S. that the Aug. 21 alleged chemical attack appears

to have been the work of the Syrian regime. But, they added, any potential military attack against Syria should wait for a

U.N. inspectors' report.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said that the available intelligence "seems to indicate strong evidence that the

Syrian regime is responsible for the attack."

The report from the U.N. inspectors, who collected evidence in the suburbs hit by the Aug. 21 attack, is expected later this

month, although some European officials are asking the U.N. to speed up the probe or issue an interim report.

Later Saturday in Paris, Kerry pressed the administration's case further, saying "this is not the time to be silent spectators

to slaughter."

France, which firmly backs the Syrian rebels and has strategic and historic interests in the region, had been ready to take

military action last week but held off after Obama declared he would seek the backing of Congress first.

The prospect of a U.S.-led strike against

Syria has raised concerns of potential retaliation from the Assad regime

or its

allies. On Friday, the State Department ordered nonessential U.S.

diplomats to leave Lebanon over security concerns and urged

private American citizens to depart as well.

The Shiite militant group Hezbollah, an Assad ally that has sent fighters into Syria, is based in Lebanon.

On Saturday, dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy against military strikes on Syria. Some of the demonstrators

carried placards reading "No War," and "Hands off Syria."

Syrian officials have been trying to capitalize on reluctance in Europe and the U.S., and both the government and state media

accuse Obama of "supporting terrorism."

"Any US aggression against Syria has no

explanation other than (that it's) supporting terrorism," Syrian Deputy

Foreign Minister

Faisal Mekdad said in an interview with state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV

broadcast late Friday. He challenged the international community

to present evidence that Syria had used sarin, and said military

action against his country would be "dangerous and might

affect America's friends and the entire world."

At the Vatican, an estimated 70,000 people answered Pope Francis' call for a four-hour Syria peace vigil late Saturday, joining

Christians as well as non-Christians in similar vigils around the world.

The turnout in St. Peter's Square was believed to be one of the largest rallies in the West against proposed U.S.-led military

action.

Francis spent most of the vigil in silent

prayer, but during his speech he issued a heartfelt plea for peace :

"This evening,

I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of

other religions and every man and woman of good will, cry

out forcefully: Violence and war are never the way to peace!"