Syrian forces killed dozens of people near a mosque in the city of Idlib, opposition activists said on Tuesday, and rebels killed at least 10 troops in an ambush in the same area, focus of the latest government crackdown.
Video footage showed the bloodied bodies of several unidentified men strewn on the floor of the mosque. An unseen voice said it was impossible to move them due to heavy shelling.
Army defectors ambushed a checkpoint in Idlib region in the northwest, killing the 10 soldiers and possibly more, while rebels also killed 12 members of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the southern town of Deraa, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Fighting was reported, too, in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and in Syria's third largest city Homs, as a year-long uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule increasingly resembles a full-blown civil war.
Speaking after meeting opponents of Assad in Turkey, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said he was expecting to hear later on Tuesday the response from Syria to concrete proposals he had made to end the escalating violence.
The Syrian parliament said Assad, who has promised reforms short of his resignation, had ordered a legislative election for May 7. It would be held under a new constitution, approved by a referendum last month which the opposition and their Western and Arab backers dismissed as a sham.
Despite mounting international pressure on him in the form of sanctions, Assad has significant allies, notably in Iran. And world powers remained at odds over how to tackle the crisis, with Russia and China continuing to back the Syrian leader.
As growing numbers of refugees seek to flee the fighting, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said Syrian forces were laying landmines near the borders with Lebanon and Turkey, along routes used by the civilians to escape the mayhem.
Idlib province borders Turkey and has become a hiding place for rebels, drawing regular army reprisals.
An activist in the city of Idlib, speaking by telephone, said security forces had killed 11 people trying to leave the area two days ago and dumped them in al-Bilal mosque.
More bodies were brought to the mosque on Monday, but when locals went to inspect the corpses, they too came under fire, pushing the death toll above 50, he said. Another activist contacted by Reuters confirmed the killings.
When people came from the neighbourhood early this morning, the security forces also started firing at them. In total, about 45 people were massacred, said the man, who like many in Syria gave only his first name, Mohammed, for fear of reprisals.
Activists said the bodies of six other people were found in the nearby village of Maarat Shureen.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.
WAITING ON DAMASCUS
Following meetings with Assad at the weekend in Damascus, former U.N. chief Annan held talks in Ankara with the Syrian National Council (SNC) - a fractious assortment of Assad opponents whose leadership lives abroad.
I am expecting to hear from the Syrian authorities today, since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider, Annan told a subsequent news conference.
Once I receive their answer we will know how to react.
Annan has not disclosed what his proposals entailed, but a diplomatic source said the U.N. envoy had told Assad he wanted an immediate cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access to the conflict zones and political dialogue.
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.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arms to be sent to help in the fight Assad, who is a member of the minority Alawite sect and is allied to Shi'ite Iran.
Syria lies in a pivotal position, bordering Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. Its 23-million-strong population comprises a mix of faiths, sects and ethnic groups, and analysts say the gathering conflict could destabilise the entire region.
While the rebels have only light weapons, the army has repeatedly used tanks, mortars and artillery, and has regularly shelled built-up areas, apparently indiscriminately.
I have heard shelling in the Old City since 8 this morning, one activist in the city of Homs told Reuters. There is gunfire everywhere, he added, asking to be referred to only as Sami for fear of arrest.
More than 8,000 people have died in the Syrian uprising, including many women and children, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, president of the U.N. General Assembly, said on Monday.
The Syrian government says more than 2,000 police and regular army soldiers have been killed by armed terrorist groups, blaming foreign interference for the unrest. It has not given any figures for civilian deaths.
Human Rights Watch said anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines of Russian origin had been found near Syria's borders, with indications they had been planted by the army this year.
Syria, like Russia, the United States and over 30 other states, has not signed up to a global ban on landmines.
Any use of anti-personnel landmines is unconscionable, said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at HRW. There is absolutely no justification for the use of these indiscriminate weapons by any country, anywhere, for any purpose.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)