Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad attacked rebel strongholds in various parts of Syria on Wednesday, intensifying their assault as the uprising entered its second year with a negotiated solution as far off as ever.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, said he had received a reply from Damascus to peace proposals that he laid out at the weekend, and wanted further clarifications.
But given the grave and tragic situation on the ground, everyone must realise that time is of the essence. As (Annan) said in the region, this crisis cannot be allowed to drag on, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement from Geneva.
Official Syrian media accused armed terrorists of massacring 15 civilians, including young children, in a pro-government district of the central city of Homs, which has been the focal point of much fighting in recent weeks.
In the southern city of Deraa, cradle of what began a year ago as a peaceful uprising but has gradually evolved into an armed insurgency, opposition activists said government troops had raked buildings with anti-aircraft fire.
There were also reports of a tank bombardment on the village of al-Janoudieh in the northern Idlib region.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 8,000 people in their drive to crush the uprising. Its refugee agency said on Tuesday that some 230,000 Syrians had fled their homes during the past 12 months, of whom around 30,000 have sought safety abroad.
Amnesty International said in a report that Syrians detained during the uprising had suffered widespread torture that amounted to a crime against humanity.
Diplomats have warned that Syria, riven by sectarian divides, will descend into a Balkans-style civil war unless a political solution can be found.
Annan presented Assad with a five-point plan to end the fighting at talks on Saturday and Sunday. A Middle Eastern diplomatic source said the Syrians had asked for more details.
The Syrians are dealing seriously with Annan. There is not a 'no', but they are discussing some of the points they are not convinced about ... The reply that Annan (got) will need a week to understand, he added.
FLEEING THE FIGHTING
Fighting has raged unabated across Syria in recent days, with the army appearing to push back the lightly armed rebels.
Following a pattern seen in recent weeks in Homs, it has taken control of much of the northern city of Idlib, striking first with heavy gun fire before launching house-to-house raids, activists said.
A stream of refugees crossed into Turkey early on Wednesday, saying they had been warned that their villages in Idlib province would be targeted by the army in the coming hours.
They are bombing Idlib. They are bombing the city. They have tanks and they have rockets, said Abdul Samad, one of the refugees waiting for help at a fog-bound border post.
The al-Balad district of Deraa, on the southern border with Jordan, came under attack from around 20 tanks and armoured vehicles, activist Rami Abdelhaq told Reuters.
The attack began early this morning. The rebels are firing back, but they are outgunned, Abdelhaq said, speaking by phone.
Fighting also broke out in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, in Syria's Sunni desert heartland.
The country comprises a mix of faiths, sects and ethnic groups. Assad's minority Alawite sect dominates the levers of power and holds sway over the Sunni Muslim majority.
Wednesday's reported massacre in Homs took place in an Alawite district. On Sunday, rebels and government traded blame for the murder of up to 50 people in a mixed area of the city.
The authorities say rebels have also killed 2,000 soldiers during the months of fighting.
The turmoil, coupled with Western sanctions, has cost Damascus billions of dollars in lost revenue from crude oil sales and tourism receipts. The Syrian pound has halved in value, foreign investment has dried up and trade has collapsed.
Yet there is no sign of the Assad family and their allies losing their grip on power, or of significant defections from the government or army.
While Western powers and much of the Arab world have slammed the bloody crackdown, Syria has been able to count on the support of both Russia and China, which have vetoed two U.N. resolutions that were critical of Damascus.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on Wednesday that Beijing was taking no sides in the crisis, and that he was deeply pained by the suffering of the Syrian people, though his remarks did not suggest China's diplomatic position will change.
State media said China would offer $2 million in humanitarian aid through the Red Cross.
The United Nations said on Tuesday that it would soon deploy human rights monitors in countries bordering Syria to collect eyewitness testimony on atrocities committed in the country.
The Amnesty report said Syria should be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. However, only the U.N. Security Council can do that, and it remains divided.
The testimony presented in this report ... is yet further evidence that torture and other ill-treatment in Syria form part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, Amnesty said.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Editing by Kevin Liffey)