Syrian government shelling and offensives against rebel-held towns killed at least 74 civilians across the country yesterday, activists said, as the United States posted online satellite images of troop deployments that cast further doubt on whether the regime intends to comply with an internationally sponsored peace plan.
President Bashar al-Assad has accepted a ceasefire deadline brokered by the international envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for the Syrian leader's forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday, and for both government and rebels to lay down their arms by 6am local time on Thursday. But the escalating violence of the past few days – fuelling accusations that Mr Assad is rushing to stamp out as much of the year-old uprising against him as he can before next week's ceasefire – means that thousands of Syrian refugees are streaming across the border into Turkey, with horrific accounts of mass graves, massacres and burned-out homes.
The trigger for the new wave of refugees was an offensive in Idlib province, which borders Turkey and which has become increasingly rebellious. Activists reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi in recent days. A photograph provided to Associated Press by a Syrian activist showed at least a dozen corpses wrapped in blankets in what appeared to be a mass grave in Taftanaz. AP could not verify the authenticity of the photograph, but witnesses also described a mass grave.
"They destroyed the whole village," said one refugee, after fleeing Killi, who asked to be identified only as Anas. "If he has to kill, Bashar would even kill a million people. He doesn't care." Hikmet Saban, another Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, described the devastation in Taftanaz, several miles outside the city of Idlib. "Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously," he told Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency. "Taftanaz has been burnt to the ground for three days." Activists posted video footage they said showed a helicopter gunship firing a missile at Taftanaz, and a mosque hit by shelling.
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said that the Syrian government appears to have pulled back some of its forces from towns and cities, but in other places has kept in place or simply shifted around troops and armoured vehicles. He said he was basing his information on satellite images, before and after the alleged pullouts, which were posted on the US embassy Facebook page on Saturday.
Mr Ford said in a statement that, according to the satellite images, there were some areas – such as Dael in the southern province of Daraa, and Taftanaz – where some forces were removed following several days of assaults against the towns. In Taftanaz, the Syrian government simply moved some armoured vehicles out and into the nearby town of Zirdana.
"In some other places, such as Homs and Zabadani, the Syrian government kept artillery units near residential areas where they could again fire upon them," Mr Ford said.
The central city of Homs has been a focal point of the uprising, and Zabadani is a rebel stronghold west of Damascus, on the Syrian border.
The ambassador was forced to leave Syria in February, citing security concerns, and the US embassy there was closed indefinitely. Arrests, sweeps and the artillery bombardment of opposition strongholds have continued, Mr Ford said. "This is not the reduction in offensive Syrian government security operations that all agree must be the first step for the Annan initiative to succeed." He added: "The regime and the Syrian people should know that we are watching. The regime cannot hide the truth."
Mr Ford urged the Syrian President to allow a UN monitoring force into the country and to give it full access to investigate the regime's compliance with the peace plan.
On Friday, a small UN advance team headed by a Norwegian army officer, Robert Mood, met with Syria's deputy foreign minister to discuss the ceasefire plans. Maj-Gen Mood is to set up a UN monitoring force with 200 to 250 members, if the peace plan succeeds.
Opposition groups said at least 53 people were killed across Syria yesterday, most of them in government shelling and clashes in the village of al-Latamneh in the central Hama province. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that four people were killed in the nearby Tibet al-Imam area.
An amateur video posted by activists on the internet showed al-Latamneh residents holding up a small girl, apparently dead. The video also shows the bodies of several men, covered in white sheets, lined up on the ground.
In the nearby province of Homs, activists also reported shelling of the rebel-held areas of Rastan, Deir Baalabeh and Qusair, where they said that at least three people, including a mother and her son, were killed. The Observatory also said 13 unidentified bodies were found in Deir Baalabeh, and 10 in Hreitan, in Idlib province.
In other violence, Lebanese security officials said that six people were killed and 21 wounded in a rocket attack on a Lebanese bus after it crossed into Syria yesterday. The bus was carrying pilgrims to Iraq and was struck after it crossed the Joussiyeh border crossing from eastern Lebanon into Syria. The officials said that five Syrians and a Lebanese were killed in the attack. It was not immediately clear who fired the rocket, or how many of the dead were passengers on the bus or bystanders.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said the 10 April timeline "is not an excuse for continued killing". In statements made on Friday, he urged the government to "immediately and unconditionally" cease all military actions against the Syrian people.
The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that the fighting, which the UN says has killed more than 9,000 people, will end any time soon. In letters sent to the UN on Friday, the Syrian government said that 2,088 members of the military and 478 policemen had been killed. The regime has rarely acknowledged the deaths of protesters.
Syria denies that the revolt is a popular uprising at all, saying instead that it is facing a foreign conspiracy by armed gangs and terrorists who want to destroy the country.
The revolt began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests, but the violent government crackdown has led many to take up weapons. A fighting force called the Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, is determined to bring down the regime by force of arms.
Now, the country appears to be spiralling towards civil war – a fearsome development that could bring a regional conflagration.