Bloodshed rises in Idlib as loyalist forces lay siege to rebel stronghold

SYRIAN government forces have killed dozens of people in the northern city of Idlib, dumping their bodies in a mosque, while some 22 soldiers have died in two separate rebel ambushes.

The army yesterday intensified its assault on Idlib province in the north-west near the Turkish border, shelling built-up areas and spraying houses with machine-gun fire in a bid to dislodge anti-government fighters.

Clashes were also reported in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and security forces shelled Syria’s third largest city, Homs, as the year-long uprising against president Bashar al-Assad’s rule increasingly resembles civil war.

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The United Nations estimates more than 8,000 people have died in the uprising. Its refugee agency said yesterday that some 230,000 Syrians had fled their homes, of whom around 30,000 have sought safety abroad.

In an apparent bid to stem the exodus, Syrian forces have laid landmines near its borders with Lebanon and Turkey, along routes used by refugees, Human Rights Watch said.

Speaking after meeting opponents of Mr Assad in Turkey, UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said he was expecting to hear a response from Syria to “concrete proposals” on a ceasefire.

By last night there was no answer, although the Syrian parliament said Mr Assad had ordered a 7 May election. It will be held under a new constitution, approved by a referendum last month, which was dismissed as a sham by the opposition.

Following a brutal crackdown in Homs, the army has intensified its operations in the north and has been shelling Idlib for three days.

An activist in the town, speaking by telephone, said security forces had killed more than 20 people trying to leave the area in the past two days and dumped their bodies in a mosque. When locals went to inspect the corpses, they too came under fire, pushing the death toll above 50, he said.

Video footage showed the bodies of several unidentified men on the floor of the mosque. An unseen voice said it was impossible to move them due to heavy shelling.

Army defectors killed at least ten soldiers in an ambush in Idlib province, while rebels also killed 12 members of the security forces in the southern town of Deraa, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Following meetings with Mr Assad at the weekend in Damascus former UN chief Mr Annan held talks in Ankara with the Syrian National Council (SNC) – a loose assortment of Assad opponents whose leaders live abroad. SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said the aim remained to secure a political and diplomatic solution, otherwise foreign governments would deliver on promises to supply weapons to rebel forces.

However, the SNC is deeply divided, as resignations yesterday from its council showed. Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge and veteran dissident, quit the SNC and another opposition leader, Kamal al-Labwani, said he too was preparing to resign.

“There is a lot of chaos and not a lot of clarity over what they can accomplish right now,” Mr Maleh said.