Fierce clashes raged across Syria despite a U.N. Security Council peace call, with as many as 83 people killed on Thursday, monitors and activists said, as a rights group accused Syrian forces of using “Homs tactics” against a town on the Lebanese border by shelling residential areas.
Twelve people, including women and children, were killed on Thursday as they were fleeing violence in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on board a bus headed to Turkey, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.
The bus, with women and children on board, was shot up near the town of Sermin in the northwestern province of Idlib, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, without identifying the assailants.
An opposition activist on the ground, Milad Fadl, contacted by AFP in Beirut, said the civilians were headed for Turkey to escape the bloodshed when regime forces opened fire.
The Britain-based Observatory said earlier that a 17-year-old boy was killed and dozens wounded in an army assault on Sermin itself.
Army forces attacked a string of towns, while rebel fighters struck army posts in several provinces and announced a command structure to coordinate hit-and-run strikes in and around the capital.
In the deadliest attack on the army, five soldiers were killed in a raid on a military checkpoint in the region of Latakia, said the Observatory.
The region has a large population of Alawites, members of the minority offshoot of Shiite Islam to which President Bashar al-Assad also belongs and which forms the backbone of his regime.
In the south, rebel fighters killed a soldier and wounded four others near the village of Saida in Deraa province, where Syria’s year-old revolt against the regime erupted, said the monitoring group.
Army deserters killed two soldiers in the town.
It added three civilians were killed as troops sprayed heavy machinegun fire in Qusayr, a town in the flashpoint province of Homs, central Syria, where rebel forces killed four soldiers.
The reports could not be confirmed due to restrictions on the movements of foreign media.
Security Council peace call
The escalation came just hours after the Security Council passed a statement urging Assad and his foes to implement “fully and immediately” international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
Annan’s plan calls for Assad to pull troops and heavy weapons out of protest cities, a daily two-hour humanitarian pause to hostilities, access to all areas affected by the fighting, and a U.N.-supervised halt to all clashes.
A correspondent at the scene also reported violent clashes in and around Sermin, a village near the town of Binesh in Idlib, as army shelling and tank fire threw up thick plumes of black smoke.
“Tanks have been posted on the Sermin-Binesh road blocking any evacuation of the wounded or villagers from fleeing the clashes,” said another rebel fighter, Abu Salmu.
Monitors say more than 9,100 people have been killed in a revolt against Assad that started with peaceful protests before turning into an increasingly armed revolt, faced with a brutal crackdown costing dozens of lives each day.
On the rebel side, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has set up a military council to coordinate hit-and-run strikes around Damascus, it announced in an online video.
Human Rights Watch charged Thursday that Syrian forces were using “Homs tactics” against Qusayr, which lies on the Lebanese border, by shelling residential areas, deploying snipers and attacking civilians trying to flee.
Citing 18 witnesses, HRW said similar tactics were employed by government forces in their capture of the cities of Idlib and Homs earlier this month.
Residents of Qusayr had told HRW that rebels who pulled out of the Baba Amro district of Homs on March 1 after a month-long shelling that monitors said cost hundreds of lives had joined FSA comrades in their town.
Friends of the Syrian People
Meanwhile, various factions of the Syrian opposition will meet early next week in Istanbul to coordinate their requests for support prior to the second conference of “Friends of the Syrian People” on April 1.
“The goal is to prepare for the conference of ‘Friends of Syria’,” Halit Hoca, a member of the main opponent group Syrian National Council, told AFP Thursday.
He also said that the gathering was likely to be closed to the press.
The meeting of the Syrian opposition comes amid difficulties in forming a united front, with the resignation on March 14 of three members from the SNC, followed by the creation of a new coalition of five small opposition groups three days later.
“All voices of the opposition will meet in Istanbul,” Mahmoud Osman, another SNC member, said as he signaled that the Syrian regime opponents will search for a united voice at the Istanbul meeting.
On the first day of April, countries aiming to resolve the Syrian crisis will meet to discuss ways to help the Syrian opposition and stop the violent crackdown of Assad’s regime.
The first meeting of the “Friends of Syria” was held in Tunis in late February, with participation from around 60 countries, including Western and Arab nations.