Violence continues across Syria; activists say gov’t troops out to ‘destroy’ Rastan

Members of the United Nations observer mission in Syria are seen between destroyed houses in Sermeen, near the northern city of Idlib. (Reuters)

As many as 20 people have been killed by the gunfire of Syrian forces across the country on Thursday, the Sham news network reported.

Violence continued inside Syria, as residents of Rastan in central Syria said government forces shelled the town, and an opposition group said security forces carried out a campaign of arrests in suburbs of the capital Damascus, and skirmished with rebels.

“The army is trying to gradually destroy Rastan,” Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Britain-based watchdog, told AFP.

He added that at least 30 shells smashed into the town in a 10 minute period, and urged United Nations monitors, deployed to observe a truce that has been violated daily, to immediately visit Rastan.

The account from the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said a total of 40 people had been killed by government forces across the country on Wednesday, could not be verified independently, according to Reuters.

Syria has sharply restricted journalist access during an uprising that began with mass protests which Assad’s forces sought to put down violently, and now features an insurgency that takes the offensive against Assad’s rule.

Elsewhere Thursday, two blasts rocked the neighborhoods of al-Jamila and al-Furqan in Aleppo, while other explosions were heard across the northern city early morning.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, the Observatory said.

In Damascus province, regime forces carried out raids in the suburbs of Irbin and Kanakar, where three people were arrested.

And in the town of al-Qatifa, clashes broke out after midnight after the defection of several soldiers from an army center.

Regime troops also stormed several neighborhoods in the southern city of Deraa “in an attempt to break a general strike” in progress. The sound of gunfire was also reported, according to the Observatory.

In Khan Sheikhoun in the northwest province of Idlib, one civilian died of wounds sustained during an attack on the town Tuesday.

Syria is five weeks into a ceasefire deal -- brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan -- that calls for the release of political prisoners and allowing peaceful protest as a elements of a strategy to map a path out of the country's bloodshed.

But violence has barely slowed in the country, and a U.N. truce monitoring team was caught up earlier this week in an attack in northern Idlib province that saw at least 21 people killed, and observers forced to spent a night with rebels who pledged they were protecting them.

Syria has pledged political reforms to resolve the crisis, including a parliamentary election this week which followed on constitutional reform that allowed for political parties other than the ruling Baath -- moves dissidents call hollow.

Damascus has maintained all along that it is facing a “terrorist” conspiracy funded and directed from abroad, not least by some resource-rich Gulf monarchies, which have called for arming the fighters aiming to oust Assad.

Assad sounded that theme anew in a rare interview with Russian television on Wednesday, warning: “...it’s becoming clear that this is not ‘Spring’ but chaos, and as I have said, if you sow chaos in Syria you may be infected by it yourself.”

Syria earlier this month sent the United Nations the names of 26 foreign nationals it said had been apprehended after coming to fight in Syria. It described 20 of those as members of al-Qaeda who had entered the country from Turkey.

More than 12,000 people, the majority of them civilians, have died since the Syrian uprising began, according to the Observatory, including more than 900 killed since the April 12 truce came into effect.

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