Kofi Annan 'gravely concerned' by Syria upsurge as regime helicopter gunships unleash their fire

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UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan today said he was “gravely concerned” by an upsurge in Syria as regime helicopter gunships unleashed their fire on rebellious towns in a day of widespread violence.

With his ceasefire now abandoned by both sides Mr Annan expressed alarm at reports of fierce aerial, tank and mortar assaults on towns in the restive province of Homs and the coastal city of al-Haffa, as Bashar al-Assad’s government desperately stepped up efforts to wrest back control of pockets of opposition.

“There are indications that a large number of civilians are trapped in these towns,” said Mr Annan, urging the regime to allow UN observers to access the besieged areas.

In Homs mortars rained down with intensity, and videos posted online showed buildings erupting in orange fireballs, as black smoke rose above the skyline. Army shelling was also reported in all corners of the country, from the central province of Hama, Daraa to the south and Aleppo in the north, as well as in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, with at least 61 people reported dead according to the Local Coordination Committees.

The violence came as UN monitoring mission for the first time confirmed the army’s use of helicopters against rebel targets - an accusation long made by rebels, but one that hitherto had not been independently verified.

“UN observers reported heavy fighting in Rastan and Talbiseh, north of the city [of Homs], with mortar shelling as well as firing from helicopters, machine guns and smaller arms,” said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the mission.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that the regime is increasingly turning to aerial bombardment after suffering major losses on the ground.

Human Rights Watch today released aerial footage that shows al-Ghanto airbase, just outside the city, burning after a reported attack by a defected battalion armed with surface-to-air missiles.

The new leader of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, urged officials to defect. “We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs,” he told AFP.

One of the most ferocious assaults was reported on the Latakia city of al-Haffa, where the regime claimed “terrorists” had been preparing to commit a massacre. The state news agency SANA broadcast what it said was a telephone call between two men planning the attack.

“Slaughter the hostages… line them up, film them and take off their [clothes] and say 'a massacre happened' and send the images to the media,” SANA claimed one of the men said, adding that armed groups had burned down the hospital and committed a “brutal killing operation”.