Violence rages in Syria as Annan eyes Moscow support
At least 38 people, including 15 government soldiers, were killed Saturday in violence across Syria, activists said, as international envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Moscow to seek Russian support for a plan to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Most of the deaths occurred in the dissident provinces of Homs and Idlib, according to the activists.
Nine government soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Three others were killed when army defectors attacked a border guard unit in the north-eastern province of Hasaka, two troopers in the city of Aleppo and one more soldier in the southern province added the London-based observatory.
It reported no casualties among the rebels.
Meanwhile, 13 civilians were killed in shelling attacks by government forces against restive areas in Homs, said Abu Raad, a Syrian activist.
"Ten other civilians were killed in Sarmin in Idlib," the activist added.
The other civilian deaths were reported in the central province of Hama and in Daraa in the south.
Government forces Saturday stormed Saraqeb, prompting dozens of families to flee the town to areas near the Turkish border, said the opposition.
Activists based in the area told dpa that 26 Syrian tanks had entered Saraqeb and started razing houses where rebels were believed to be hiding. Several arrests were reported.
The state news agency SANA said Saturday that "several terrorists" were killed in Idlib.
Government forces had bombed towns near the capital Damascus following overnight clashes with rebels, said the opposition.
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.
In Beirut, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) said in a report on Saturday that nearly 14,000 Syrian refugees had fled the crackdown in their country to Lebanon.
The Syrian National Council, an umbrella of different opposition groups, said meanwhile it would meet in Turkey on Monday to re-emphasize what it described as "common goals of the Syrian opposition."
The opposition has been suffering from deep divisions since the eruption of a pro-democracy uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Istanbul meeting comes ahead of the second international conference "Friends of Syria" conference, which is scheduled to take place in the same city on April 1.
The first edition of the conference was held in Tunisia last month and was attended by representatives of around 60 countries, including Western and Arab nations.
In Moscow, the UN-Arab League envoy, Annan, is to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sunday.
Russia said on Saturday 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 will visit Beijing on Tuesday and Wednesday for talks with Chinese officials on Syria.
Russia and China, which vetoed twice UN Security Council action against Damascus, endorsed this week a statement from the international body backing Annan's plan for peace in Syria.
Annan's plan calls for an immediate end to violence, securing humanitarian access and facilitating a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system.
Annan put forward the proposals to al-Assad during recent talks in Damascus.