By Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT, July 5 (Reuters) - Syrian troops backed up by helicopters advanced on Thursday into the rebellious northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, activist residents said, one of many fronts being contested by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and pro-democracy rebels.
"(Syrian forces) have entered the town from the southern side. They are burning houses and farms," activist Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani said by Skype, adding that 80 percent of the town's residents had fled.
Rebel fighters suffered heavy loses during battles late on Wednesday night in Khan Sheikhoun, a town in rural Idlib province that straddles the strategic western highway linking Damascus and Aleppo.
Activists said government forces had bombarded the town with mortar bombs on Wednesday night in advance of their assault. They gave an initial death toll of nine people but added that more people might be dead as communication with the area was difficult.
Abu Hamam, a resident of Khan Sheikhoun, said 100 armoured vehicles, tanks and missile launchers had approached the outskirts of the town at dawn and resumed their bombardment.
"Rebels have inflicted major damage on Assad's troops. But at the same time rebels have lost ground," Abu Hamam said.
Rami Abdelrahman, a human rights activist who monitors and records violence in Syria, said in a email that 97 people had been killed on Wednesday in fighting across Syria. Over the past few weeks, daily death tolls of over a hundred have become common.
Western and Arab states who want Assad to step down to help end the crisis meet in Paris on Friday as the "Friends of Syria", a group that excludes Assad's main backer, Russia, and fellow U.N. Security Council veto-holder China.
Diplomatic efforts by a divided international community have so far been ineffective in stopping the violence.
Residents said mortar bombs were exploding in central districts of Homs, Syria's third largest city, where whole neighbourhoods have been destroyed. Despite repeated assaults by Assad's forces, rebels have still managed to keep a foothold.
A resident of the battered Khalidiya district in Homs said that the city was surrounded by artillery and troops.
"The regime has imposed a crippling siege in most of the anti-government areas of Homs," Saif al-Arabi said by Skype. "We can't get the wounded out."
A popular revolt, which started with peaceful pro-democracy protests in March 2011, has turned into a virtual civil war as the government's crackdown has triggered an armed uprising.
Now Assad is fighting rebels on the outskirts of the capital. Opposition activists in the town of Harasta, just a few miles from central Damascus, reported heavy artillery fire for government forces on Thursday morning.
Opposition leaders and Western governments say over 15,000 people have been killed in the uprising. The government says "terrorist gangs" steered from abroad have killed several thousand troops and police. (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Hatay, Turkey; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|