Syrian troops Tuesday pressed an assault on rebel strongholds near the Turkish border, as peace envoy Kofi Annan awaited a response from the regime on UN-Arab League proposals to end the bloody conflict.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces used heavy machineguns to rake the town of El-Baraa in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, a rebel bastion in the northwestern Idlib province.
The Observatory said armed rebels had hit back before dawn with an attack on a military checkpoint in the town of Maaret al-Numan in which at least 10 Syrian soldiers were killed.
In Khan Sheikhun, another rebel bastion in Idlib, gunmen attacked heavy military vehicles, damaging two of them and seizing others, the Observatory said.
It also reported clashes in Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria, in Aleppo, to the north, and in Daraa in the south.
The army has since March 9 mounted an offensive in the mountainous region near the Turkish border in a bid to seize control of the city of Idlib and other towns where the rebels are based.
Dozens of people have been killed since last week in on-off army shelling of Idlib, which is now partly controlled by the regime, and in violence across the province.
On the political front, diplomats in New York said President Bashar al-Assad has until Tuesday to give a response to peace proposals made by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who held two rounds of talks with the Syrian leader over the weekend.
"I am expecting to hear from Syrian authorities today since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider," Annan told reporters in Ankara following talks with the Syrian opposition. "Once I receive their answer we will know how to react."
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Annan at the weekend said after meeting with Assad in Damascus that he had made "concrete proposals" on ending the killing in Syria and securing humanitarian access to protest cities.
Despite intense international pressure to end the bloodshed and growing clamour for foreign intervention, Assad's regime has pushed on with its brutal crackdown on a year-long revolt that has killed more than 8,500 people, the majority civilians, according to activists.
On Monday, the opposition denounced the "massacre" of 47 women and children in the flashpoint central city of Homs. The regime, however, blamed the killings on "armed terrorist gangs".
At a UN Security Council ministerial meeting, Western governments stepped up their pleas to Russia and China to end their blockage of action over the Syrian government's assault on protest cities such as Homs.
But Russia showed little sign that it would change its stance, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slamming "risky recipes" which he said could increase conflict in the Middle East.
The grisly murders in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, came less than two weeks after regime troops stormed its rebel Baba Amr neighbourhood, following a month-long bombardment in which activists say 700 people were killed.
Activist Hadi Abdallah told AFP the bodies of 26 children and 21 women, some with their throats slit and others bearing stab wounds, were found after the "massacre" in the Karm el-Zaytoun and Al-Adawiyeh districts of Homs.
News of the killings prompted hundreds of families to flee the city, with some heading to neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey.
Syrian state television said the murders were the work of "terrorists" aiming to grab the propaganda spotlight ahead of the meeting of major powers in New York.