Syrian government 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 the pro-democracy opposition.
“[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.
Opposition fighters suffered heavy losses 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.
Meanwhile, the head of the UN observer mission in Syria said on Thursday that violence in Syria has reached unprecedented levels, insisting there must be a cease-fire in order for his teams to resume their work.
About 300 UN monitors were sent to Syria to provide an unbiased look at the violence, but they have been confined to their hotels since June 15 because of the bloodshed.
“The escalation of violence, allow me to say, to an unprecedented level, obstructed our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue,” Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood told reporters in the Syrian capital Damascus.
As the conflict grinds on, the violence has become widespread and chaotic. Besides the government crackdown on dissent, opposition fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al-Qaeda or other extremists are joining the fray.
Syria severely restricts the media in the country, making it difficult to gain a credible account of events on the ground.
Back to Khan Sheikhoun, activists said government forces had bombarded the Syrian 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 armored vehicles, tanks and missile launchers had approached the outskirts of the town at dawn and resumed their bombardment.
“Opposition fighters have inflicted major damage on Assad’s troops. But at the same time the opposition has 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 UN 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 neighborhoods have been destroyed. Despite repeated assaults by Assad’s forces, the opposition forces have still managed to keep a foothold.
Iraq’s Zebari: al-Qaeda members crossing into Syria
Meanwhile, Iraq said on Thursday that it believed militants loyal to al-Qaeda members were crossing from Iraq into Syria to carry out attacks.
“We have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaeda terrorist networks have gone in the other direction, to Syria, to help, to liaise, to carry out terrorist attacks,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told a news conference in Baghdad.