By Erika Solomon and Douglas Hamilton
BEIRUT, March 28 (Reuters) - Syrian government forces kept up heavy weapons fire and siege tactics against opposition strongholds on Wednesday despite President Bashar al-Assad's acceptance of a peace plan calling for the army to withdraw to its barracks, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported military action against towns and villages from the southern province of Deraa to the Hama region 320 kms (200 miles) to the north.
Shelling was also reported in parts of Homs, Syria's third largest city, where Assad on Tuesday toured the devastated streets of a rebel bastion overrun by his troops earlier this month after weeks of bombardment.
"Military forces accompanied by dozens of armoured vehicles stormed the town of Qalaat al-Madiq and nearby villages (in Hama)," the activist website reported. "This comes after weeks of heavy gun and mortar fire and several failed attempts to invade the town."
"The regime has been shelling our town for 18 days, they are destroying our ancient fort," said one activist calling himself Abu Dhafer. "Thousands of people have fled and nearby villagers have gone to homes in safe areas. They are cramming people into their homes, a dozen to a room, men women and children."
"The rebels have left the town, it is surrounded and being shelled and we don't have enough weapons to fight back."
Syria has accepted a U.N.-sponsored peace plan calling for the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from cities ahead of peace talks between Assad and his opponents, special envoy Kofi Annan said on Tuesday.
The United States, Germany and other Western powers greeted the news with scepticism, saying they would wait and see what Assad actually did, rather than take his word for it.
"We will judge Assad's sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling on him to order his forces to start withdrawing from populated areas.
Annan, who represents the United Nations and the Arab League, said getting Assad's agreement in principle to his six-point peace framework was an important first step but implementing it "is going to be a long difficult task."
Annan's plan calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, for humanitarian assistance to be allowed in unimpeded, for the release of prisoners, freedom of movement and access for journalists to go in and out.
ATTACKS AT DAWN
Violent clashes between government troops and rebel ground forces began at dawn in Basr al-Harir in southern Deraa after security forces told residents to hand over the rebels or face an attack, the Observatory report said.
When the army tried to storm the town of Rastan in central Homs province in the early morning, three soldiers were killed and at least four rebels wounded. Mortar rounds exploded in the Old City of Homs, according to the activists' account.
Assad's opponents grouped around the Syrian National Council (SNC) remain sceptical of the Annan plan and Assad's proclaimed acceptance of its terms and continue to press for him to stand down.
"He is buying time. It means more killing. He is playing games," said SNC member Adib Shishakly. "Every hour we are losing five people. So really, time is life."
Russia, one of Syria's staunchest allies, meanwhile said it was sceptical of the "Friends of Syria" meeting due to take place in Istanbul on Sunday, saying it feared it would be a cloak for foreign interference.
"Such events, unfortunately, have a one-sided political direction," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said at a weekly briefing on Tuesday.
"The participants are not seeking to establish an inter-Syrian dialogue in the interest of ending the conflict but, on the contrary, are probably preparing the ground for interference from outside," he said.
Opposition unity talks that took place in Istanbul on Tuesday got off to an unpromising start when veteran dissident Haitham al-Maler and Kurdish delegates walked out, saying their views were not being heard.
Clinton urged Syria's fractious opposition to unite.
"They must be able to clearly demonstrate a commitment to including all Syrians and protecting the rights of all Syrians," she said. "We are going to be pushing them very hard to present such a vision in Istanbul."
"RETURN TO NORMAL"
Assad on Tuesday morning made a foray into the heartland of Syria's year-old uprising, visiting the devastated former rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in the city of Homs, which his forces overran after weeks of shelling. Syrian TV called it a "field inspection", and it appeared designed to show he could safely walk the streets.
"Life will return to normal in Baba Amr, better than it was before," Assad told a small crowd of supporters and soldiers.
Syrian state television on Wednesday showed children in the northern city of Idlib tripping gaily to school in complete safety. A little later, it was reporting on the "terrorist" menace stalking other parts of the country.
The United Nations estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria's upheaval over the past year. Syrian authorities blame foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.
United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Wednesday she thought Assad bore direct responsibility for what his troops were doing.
"Factually there's enough evidence pointing to the fact that many of these acts are committed by the security forces [and that they] must have to seek the approval or the complicity at the highest level," she told the BBC.
"We also find that four sections of the security and military intelligence report directly to him. So this is the kind of things that judges hearings on crimes against humanity will be looking at, of command responsibility."
"The government says there are armed individuals in the civilian communities, that there are terrorists active. That is never an excuse to go and use heavy weaponry against civilians in densely populated areas. So under international law that is a crime."
She said she had also seen harrowing evidence that children were being mistreated in Syrian detention centres.
"It's just hoprrendous," she said. "Children shot in the knees, held together with adults in really inhumane conditions, denied medical treatment for their injuries, (and) either held as hostages or held as sources of information."
Assad's crackdown on the year-old uprising has angered Arab countries including former allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which favour arming the rebels. But Western and Arab governments which would be glad to see Assad ousted are wary of what might replace the 40-year-old family dynasty and its ruthless, but predictable, police state.
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
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.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
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.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
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.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded 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. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
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)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
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.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
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
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS