Syrian troops pummelled opposition neighbourhoods in the city of Homs with heavy mortars on Wednesday after peace envoy Kofi Annan said Damascus had again promised to respect a ceasefire due to take effect in little more than 12 hours.
Annan, this is your ceasefire, ran the sarcastic voiceover on an activist video that showed a shopping mall engulfed in flames after it was hit in bombardment of the Juret al-Shayah quarter. Sniper fire cracked out incessantly in the background.
At least 12 people were killed on Wednesday, activists said.
Western powers have scorned President Bashar al-Assad's truce pledges to the United Nations-Arab League mediator, but so far lack an effective policy to curb the bloodshed, given their own aversion to military intervention and the resistance of Russia and China to any U.N. Security Council action.
Far from fulfilling their commitment, the regime has cynically exploited the window of diplomatic negotiations to crack down even harder on its own people, British Prime Minister David Cameron said during a visit to Indonesia.
He said Annan had reported that Assad's troops were conducting roving military operations in population centres supported by artillery fire. An estimated 1,000 people had been killed in the past week, Cameron said.
With all hostilities with rebels supposed to end at dawn on Thursday, activist videos posted on YouTube showed bombs crashing into the Khalidiya district of Homs.
Spouts of pulverised debris burst high into the air with each impact and plumes of dust and smoke drifted over the rooftops. The videos could not be verified and the Syrian government bars most independent media from the country.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a British-based activist information organisation, said three people were killed Homs and shelling that went on for an hour killed a man, woman and child in Qusair near the border with Lebanon and three were killed outside Damascus.
Mortar fire started at 7 this morning. I can hear one explosion every five minutes, said activist Waleed al-Fares in Homs, where bombardment killed at least 26 people on Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to seek a policy change from one of Assad's few foreign friends.
We will have another go at trying to persuade the Russians that the situation is deteriorating and the likelihood of regional conflict and civil war is increasing, she said.
China expressed deep worries about the violence in Syria and called for all sides to respect a ceasefire. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin also described Annan's work as an important and rare opportunity to end the crisis.
Annan's plan, endorsed by the Security Council, is for now the only game in town and the former U.N. secretary general said it must be given a chance to work.
If everyone respects it, I think by 6 in the morning (0300 GMT) on Thursday we shall see improved conditions on the ground, he said in Tehran, where he was asking Syria's staunchest regional ally to support his efforts.
But the Syrian military has stayed on the offensive, pursuing assaults on several anti-Assad strongholds, instead of pulling back, as Annan's plan required them to do on Tuesday.
The SOHR said two people were killed in army raids in Deir al-Zor in the Euphrates river valley far to the east. Artillery shelled the Jebel Akrad area in the coastal province of Latakia.
Helicopters flew overhead and the army prevented the evacuation of people. There are reports of houses being destroyed by shelling while families are still in them, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the SOHR.
In southern Deraa, birthplace of the 13-month-old revolt against four decades of Assad family rule, activists said many busloads of troops backed by armoured vehicles had flooded the city and were making house-to-house raids.
Activist Omar al-Hariri said he had never seen so many troops: The army is exploiting the ceasefire to arrest more dissidents than ever and security forces are burning houses.
Anti-Assad rebels have said they will stop fighting if the Syrian military pulls back and ceases fire as promised.
PART OF THE SOLUTION
Annan, at a news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, urged Iran to help resolve the violence and warned of unimaginable consequences if it worsened further.
I have received (Syrian) government assurances they will respect the ceasefire, he said, adding: I believe Iran can be part of the solution.
Salehi said Syrians should be able to have free elections contested by political parties, but reiterated Iran's opposition to any outside interference in Syria's affairs and made clear the Islamic Republic wanted Assad to stay in charge.
The opportunity must be given to the Syrian government to make changes, under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, he said.
Iran has unstintingly backed Syria, the only Arab nation to support Iran in its 1980-88 war with Iraq and the conduit for Iranian arms to Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah movement.
Syria, where Assad's Shi'ite-rooted Alawite minority dominates a Sunni Muslim majority, has become an arena for a sectarian-tinged regional contest between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Arab rivals aligned with the West and led by Saudi Arabia.
For now, no end to Syria's agony is in sight.
Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, according to a U.N. estimate. Damascus says rebels have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security personnel.
This is a decisive moment, Cameron said, adding - in remarks clearly pointed at Moscow and Beijing - that the Security Council now had a clear responsibility to throw its weight behind Annan's plan and insist it is implemented.
(Additional reporting by Marcus George in Dubai, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Sui-Lee Wee and Sabrina Mao in Beijing, Paul Eckert in Annapolis and Mohammed Abbas in Jakarta; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Alastair Macdonald)