At least 38 killed across Syria as fierce clashes rage on in rebel towns

The unrest in Syria has so far left more than 9,000 people dead since mid-March last year, according to U.N. figures. (AP)

Fierce clashes between Syrian government forces and rebel fighters erupted on Thursday in Duma, near the capital Damascus, while violence also raged in other parts of the strife-torn country, monitors said.

At least 38 people, half of them civilians, were killed in violence across the country on Thursday, monitors said, with fierce fighting between regime troops and insurgents in the rebel provinces of Idlib and Homs.

In central Homs province, army shelling of the town of Rastan killed four civilians, including two children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In Homs city itself, eight regime forces were killed and dozens wounded in fighting with rebel forces on the outskirts of the Deir Baalaba neighbourhood, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Four civilians were also killed in Homs city, including three stabbed by Shabiha pro-regime militia, the Observatory added.

Separately, regime troops backed by tanks stormed Douma, near Damascus, at dawn amid heavy gunfire and shelling.

Clashes between soldiers and rebel forces were reported in various parts of Douma, some 13 kilometers (seven miles) northeast of the capital, with a civilian killed by sniper fire, the Observatory said.

Plumes of smoke could be seen near the city's main mosque as troop reinforcements were sent in.

Two young men were killed in Kfar Sousa, a neighborhood of Damascus early on Thursday when security forces opened fire on their car.

In the embattled northwestern province of Idlib, meanwhile, at least eight civilians were killed, along with six regime forces, the Observatory said.

Clashes were also reported in several towns in nearby Aleppo province, including Andan and Hritan, where messages on loudspeakers urged regime troops to defect and join the opposition.

Five soldiers were killed in two separate attacks there and in southern Daraa, cradle of the revolt that broke out in March last year against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the Observatory said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime troops backed by tanks stormed Duma at dawn amid heavy gunfire and shelling.

Mohammed Abu Nasr, an activist in Hraytan, said the town of about 50,000 has been subjected to intense shelling by tanks and helicopters since 5 a.m. local time, the Associated Press reported. He added that a ground offensive began three hours later and hundreds of troops are pushing their way into the town.

“There are wounded people in the streets that we cannot reach because of the shelling,” Abu Nasr told AP by telephone. “The situation is catastrophic in the city. Large numbers of people are fleeing.”

Violence across the country has left hundreds of people dead so far this week despite a pledge by President Bashar al-Assad to implement a peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Intensification of violence

Two young men were killed in Kfar Sousa, a neighborhood of Damascus early Thursday when security forces opened fire on their car, the Observatory said.

Activists added that troops were also in pursuit of several other young men in the neighborhood.

Five soldiers were meanwhile killed in two separate attacks in the northern province of Aleppo and in southern Deraa, cradle of the revolt that broke out last year in March against Assad’s regime.

Clashes were reported in several towns of Aleppo province, including Andan and Hritan where messages on loudspeakers urged regime troops to defect and join the opposition, the Observatory said.

Washington on Wednesday criticized the “intensification” of violence against opponents of the regime given Assad’s pledge to implement by April 10 Annan’s six-point peace plan.

Activists reached by phone Wednesday in north, south and central Syria said they had seen no sign that the military was pulling out. Some reported the opposite.

The unrest in Syria has so far left more than 9,000 people dead since mid-March last year, according to U.N. figures.

The revolt against the regime began as a popular uprising but has transformed into an insurgency many fear will lead to a full-blown civil war.

A policy of genocide against the Syrian people

The Syrian National Council, the main opposition bloc, accused the regime of carrying out “a policy of genocide against the Syrian people” and called for immediate pressure from the international community for a pullback of tanks.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday predicted that under-equipped rebel forces would never be able to defeat Syria’s powerful military.

“It is clear as day that even if the Syrian opposition is armed to the teeth, it will not be able to defeat the government’s army,” the Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying while on a visit to the ex-Soviet nation of Azerbaijan.

“Instead, there will be carnage that lasts many, many years -- mutual destruction.”

Lavrov said two groups of Syrian opposition representatives would visit Moscow in the coming days and that Russia would try to convince them that it wanted to help resolve the year-long crisis.

Seeking to assuage humanitarian concerns, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem pledged Damascus would do its utmost to ensure the success of a Red Cross mission, at a meeting on Tuesday with visiting ICRC chief Jakob Kellenberger.

Kellenberger, who is pushing for a daily ceasefire, travelled on Wednesday to Deraa to assess the humanitarian needs there, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Two lorries filled with food aid and hygiene kits, as well as 500 blankets, were unloaded at Red Cross depots in Deraa ready for distribution, ICRC spokesman in Damascus Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP.

The state news agency SANA, meanwhile, said “armed terrorist groups” had burnt down a Syrian Red Crescent depot in the Karabis district of Homs, in an incident condemned by the local relief organization.

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