Syrian forces, rebels battle as dissident areas attacked
At least seven Syrian government forces were killed Saturday in violent clashes with rebels in several areas of the country, opposition groups and activists reported.
Three of the deaths occurred in the town of Saraqeb in the northern province of Idlib, according the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, dpa reported.
Three others were killed in an attack by army defectors on a border guard unit in the north-eastern province of Haska, the group said.
One soldier was killed in fighting at a security checkpoint in the southern province of Daraa, the group said, without citing casualties among the army deserters.
Meanwhile, at least 14 civilians were killed Saturday in attacks by government forces on several restive areas in the country, according to activists.
Ten of the deaths occurred in the central province of Homs, regarded as an opposition stronghold, in shelling attacks by government troops, the activists said. Dozens of families fled the town of Saraqeb after it was stormed by government forces, they added.
"Sixty per cent of the population of the town of Saraqeb have already fled to areas near the Turkish border," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
Activists based in the area told dpa that 26 Syrian tanks had entered the town and started razing houses where rebels were believed to be hiding. Several arrests were made.
The government forces, meanwhile, attacked the villages of Sermin and Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, forcing local rebels to retreat from both areas, activists said.
The state news agency SANA reported that "several terrorists" were killed in Idlib, which is located near the Turkish border.
Government forces also bombed towns near the capital Damascus following overnight clashes with rebels, said the opposition.
A video posted on Syrian opposition websites showed members of the rebel Free Syrian Army announcing that defectors of various brigades had arrived in the area to help rebels "confront the tyrant regime."
A Syrian helicopter pilot, who refused to obey orders to bomb the area of Azaz in the city of Aleppo, targeted a Syrian security intelligence centre instead before fleeing to Turkey, the Dubai-based broadcaster Al Arabiya reported, quoting opposition sources.
If confirmed, this would be the first incident of its kind in the one-year unrest.
Reports from Syria are difficult to verify independently as the government has barred most foreign media from restive areas since the pro-democracy uprising started in March 2011.
The United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Moscow on Saturday and was later set to travel to Beijing as part of his efforts to end the violent conflict in Syria.
A Western diplomat based in Beirut told dpa that "negotiations with the Syrian authorities and the UN-Arab league envoy have reached a critical stage, and talks in Russia and China are needed to exert pressure on the Syrian regime."
Russia and China, the main allies of President Bashar al-Assad, have so far blocked binding resolutions on Syria at the UN Security Council.
The Kremlin said in a statement it would propose a ceasefire and an end to the violence in Syria, but this would require a cessation of military and political assistance from abroad to the Syrian opposition.
Annan was set to meet Sunday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Moscow also demanded that the Syrian opposition open negotiations with the al-Assad government. It said a further important step would be to improve humanitarian assistance.