At least 25 killed in Syria violence as U.N.-backed truce looks in tatters

Syrian soldiers, who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army, gather near their military armored vehicle at Khalidieh in Homs May 12, 2012. The violence in Syria has escalated over the past week, despite the arrival of more ceasefire observers. (Reuters)

Syrian regime forces shot dead 25 people after storming several opposition strongholds throughout the country, according to local monitors said, as a U.N.-backed truce entered a second month looking in tatters.

Army forces rained shells on rebel strongholds Douma and Rastan and an assault on al-Tamanaa Al-Ghab village in Hama province, a hotbed of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, killed five civilians, wounded 18 and saw houses torched, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Clashes between troops and deserters in the southern province of Daraa, meanwhile, saw five soldiers killed, it said. Two civilians died in the crossfire.

The watchdog said at least 25 people –18 civilians, five soldiers and two rebels – were killed in a surge of violence in various flashpoints on Sunday, despite a ceasefire brokered by U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan that was supposed to take effect on April 12.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a coalition of opposition activists on the ground, said the Syrian army shelled Douma near Damascus on Sunday and that heavy gunfire was also heard in the suburb of the capital.

The LCC also said the town of Rastan in central Homs province also came under heavy bombardment, with one activist reporting “one rocket a minute” slamming into the rebel-hand town.

The violence in Syria has escalated over the past week, despite the arrival of more ceasefire observers.

The U.N. mission in Syria said on Sunday it now has 189 military observers on the ground, nearly two-thirds of its planned strength of 300.

The observers are tasked with shoring up the ceasefire, which has been broken daily by both sides to the conflict.

“There are now 189 monitors on the ground,” Hassan Siklawi, a representative of the UN mission in Syria, told AFP.

Twin suicide bombings in Damascus on Thursday that killed 55 people and wounded 372 have raised fears that extremist elements are taking advantage of the deadlock in Syria to stoke the unrest.

Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group unknown before the Syrian revolt, released a video on Saturday claiming responsibility for the Damascus attacks as revenge for regime bombing of residential areas in several towns and to avenge Sunnis killed by forces loyal to Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Claims by the group, including for past bombings, have been difficult to verify.

The head of the dissident Free Syrian Army in remarks published on Sunday charged that al-Qaeda had links with the powerful airforce intelligence agency of the regime.

“If al-Qaeda militants have indeed entered the country, it happened with the cooperation of that agency,” FSA chief Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad told Kuwait’s Al-Rai newspaper.

Syria says U.S. allied to “terrorists”

Syria has accused the United States and Western countries on Saturday of colluding with al Qaeda-linked militants to target the country, in the wake of the recent Damascus and Aleppo explosions.

“Western countries and the United States, which made alliances to wage wars using the pretext of fighting terrorism, are now making alliances with the terrorists which Syria has been facing,” Information Minister Adnan Hasan Mahmoud told journalists in Damascus on Saturday.

He said attacks such as the deadly twin car bombing in Damascus showed that elements linked to the global militant group al-Qaeda were targeting Syria.

“This terrorist escalation using booby-trapped cars with tons of explosives to target the Syrian people ... is a continuation of the bloody terrorist tactic used between armed groups and al-Qaeda, along with the international Western countries that support them with weapons and money,” he said.

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