Death toll on the rise as heavy clashes erupt in south Syria near Jordan border

Demonstrators protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Marat al-Numan near the northern province of Idlib. (Reuters)

Heavy fighting broke out overnight between armored forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebels who launched coordinated attacks on army roadblocks across the southern city of Deraa on the border with Jordan, opposition activists said on Monday.

As many as 60 people were killed on Sunday by the fire of Syrian forces, mostly in Homs and Rastan, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.

Activists reported government raids in Hama, and heavy shelling in the town of Rastan, north of Homs, where rebels have been hiding.

Clashes between Syrian troops and rebels, many of them army defectors, were reported in Jebel al-Zawiya in Syria’s north, and activists said government forces had used tear gas to end an anti-Assad protest of around 1,000 people in the northern city of Aleppo.

The reports of the fighting in Deraa, where the uprising against Assad’s rule began last March, could not be independently verified.

But opposition sources say rebels loosely organized under the Free Syrian Army banner have intensified assaults on loyalist targets in southern, north and eastern Syria in the last few days to relieve pressure in the city of Homs, where troops overran the rebel district of Baba Amro last week.

“The Free Syrian Army attacked several roadblocks and street fortifications simultaneously. Tanks are responding by firing 14 mm anti-aircraft guns into residential neighborhoods and army snipers are shooting at everything that moves, even nylon bags,” Maher Abdul Haq, one of the activists, told Reuters from Deraa.

“About 20 buses carrying troops were seen heading from the football stadium in the north to the southern sector the city on the border (with Jordan),” he added.

An army offensive last April put down large demonstrations in Deraa, which had been provoked by the arrest of several women activists and the detention of schoolboys who had written freedom slogans on walls, inspired by Arab Spring revolts in other countries.

Tanks stormed Deraa again in mid-February to stamp out Free Syrian Army rebels in the city and remained deployed there, residents and opposition activists said.

Syrian artillery also pounded the rebel city of Rastan on Sunday, monitors said.

The shelling of nearby Rastan came despite a call from China on all parties to “unconditionally” end the violence which reportedly sent more civilians fleeing across the border to Lebanon.

Rebels on Feb. 5 declared Rastan “liberated” from Assad’s control, but since Homs was overrun by regime forces on Thursday, army deserters have been braced for an onslaught on Rastan and Qusayr, also near Homs, according to AFP.

An air force intelligence building at Harasta in Damascus province was also attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP, without providing further details.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, managed to get aid to Syrians fleeing fighting in the battered Baba Amro district of Homs, but was blocked for a third day from entering the former rebel bastion amid reports of bloody reprisals by state forces.

Activists reported shelling and other violence across Syria on Sunday, sending one of the biggest surges of refugees across the border into Lebanon in a single day since the anti-Assad revolt began a year ago.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had delivered food, blankets and medicine to the village of Abel, 3 km (2 miles) from Homs, where a number of people had taken refuge, and described the development as a “positive step.”

But it was again prevented from entering Baba Amro, where rebels had faced nearly a month of siege and bombardment before abandoning their positions there on Thursday.

“It’s over for tonight. We will try again tomorrow,” said Saleh Dabbakeh, the ICRC’s Damascus-based spokesman. He declined to say why Syrian forces had blocked its entry.

Concern mounted for civilians left stranded in the district in freezing weather with little food, fuel or medicine.

Activists said the government was trying to prevent the Red Cross from witnessing “massacres” by Syrian soldiers hunting down and killing remaining rebels.

The United Nations’ refugee agency said up to 2,000 Syrians had fled the fighting for neighboring Lebanon.

Refugees told Reuters of army shelling and gunfire in border towns.

Lebanon deployed more troops to its northern border in response to the violence in Syrian towns nearby, a Reuters witness said.

And in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, hundreds of soldiers and scores of military trucks and jeeps blocked off the city center during protests for and against Assad.

The United Nations says Syrian security forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians since the revolt against the Assad family’s four-decade rule began in March last year.

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