- Middle East/North Africa
BEIRUT — Syrian troops launched assaults on several towns across the country on Thursday, activists said. The offensives appeared to be a push by President Bashar al-Assad's forces to make gains on the ground ahead of a cease-fire next week.
The latest violence comes despite Assad's agreement to implement the cease-fire starting Tuesday. The truce is the keystone of a plan put forward by Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, aimed at ending the country's yearlong crisis that according to the UN has claimed the lives of more than 9,000 people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops clashed with rebel army defectors in the northern towns of Hraytan and Anadan near Aleppo. The observatory also reported fighting in the Damascus suburb of Douma and the southern village of Kfar Shams.
Mohamed Abu Nasr, an activist in Hraytan, said the town of about 50,000 was subjected to intense shelling by tanks and helicopters since 5 am local time. He added that a ground offensive began three hours later and hundreds of troops were pushing their way into the town.
"There are wounded people in the streets that we cannot reach because of the shelling," Abu Nasr said by telephone. "The situation is catastrophic in the city. Large numbers of people are fleeing."
Hraytan is just north of Aleppo, a city that has been relatively quiet since Syria's uprising began in March 2011. An amateur video posted online by activists showed smoke billowing from several areas in Anadan. A narrator said the shelling was taking place Thursday morning. Another video showed Anadan shortly before sunrise. Cracks of heavy gunfire echoed, while prayers could be heard blaring from mosque loudspeakers.
Anti-regime activists cited the latest assaults as evidence that Assad is trying to crush those seeking to overthrow his regime before the cease-fire goes into effect. Activist groups reported more than 50 dead nationwide on Wednesday.
The opposition suspects Assad agreed to the truce plan just to buy more time to continue his military crackdown on the revolt.
The truce is the keystone of a six-point plan put forward by Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities, followed by a withdrawal by rebel fighters. Then all sides are supposed to hold talks on a political solution.