AMMAN, May 14 (Reuters) - Rebels killed 23 Syrian soldiers on Monday, according to a rights group opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, in battles around the town of Rastan that further undermined a sagging U.N.-backed ceasefire.
The fighting on the outskirts of Rastan followed heavy army shelling of the town in which opposition sources said at least nine people were killed, including a local rebel commander.
Rastan, 25 km (15 miles) north of Homs city, has slipped in and out of government control several times since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011.
Shelling began on Sunday and intensified overnight, activists said, a new blow to a ceasefire declared by peace envoy Kofi Annan a month ago and which U.N. monitoring mission on the ground are observing.
"Shells and rockets have been hitting the town since three a.m. (midnight GMT) at a rate of one a minute. Rastan has been destroyed," a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA)in Rastan who declined to be named told Reuters by satellite phone.
He said among those killed was Ahmad Ayoub, an FSA commander whose fighters were battling the army forces which he said were made up of elite units and members of Military Intelligence.
The British-based Observatory said fighting began at dawn on Monday and that rebels destroyed three armoured personnel carriers and seized two others, capturing around 15 soldiers.
Syria's uprising began as a peaceful protest movement but has become increasingly militarised as rebels fight back against Assad's violent crackdown. Syria restricts media access, making it difficult to verify accounts of the unrest.
Syria's Sunni majority is at the forefront of the uprising against Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad's government says it is fighting a terrorist attempt to divide Syria.
Rastan has in the past been a major source of Sunni Muslim conscripts who provide most of manpower in the military, which is dominated by Alawite officers.
Sunni officers from Rastan began defecting after security forces shot dead dozens of demonstrators in the town and arrested many of its notables.
The area was scene of the first serious armed confrontations between army defectors and loyalist forces last year. Assad's forces regained control of the city several times but it has kept falling back into rebel hands.
Its strategic location and the terrain has helped deserters from disparate units mount raids against army buses and roadblocks manned by Military Intelligence and pro-Assad militia, opposition activists said.
Rastan lies about 180 km (110 miles) north of Damascus, among farmland and wheat fields on the Orontes River and on the northern highway leading to Aleppo.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday there was only a narrow window of opportunity to avert full-scale civil war in Syria, which sits at a crossroads of Middle East conflict bordering Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. Its 23-million population comprises a mix of faiths, sects and ethnic groups whose tensions resonate in neighbouring states.
The United States, Europe and Gulf Arab states want Assad to step down but his ally Russia has blocked more robust action against the Syrian authorities in the U.N. Security Council and remains firmly behind Annan's six-point peace plan.
Western powers have no appetite for a repeat of the military intervention that helped Libyan rebels topple long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi last year, and Moscow says arming Assad's opponents would only lead to years of inconclusive bloodshed. (Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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