DAMASCUS  - Syria’s army resumed heavy shelling of the rebel hubs of Homs and Hama on Saturday, monitors reported, as international envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Russia in a new push for peace.
Mortar rounds rained down on the flashpoint central city of Homs and nearby town of Qusayr from early morning, killing at least 10 people, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At least 20 people were reported killed nationwide, among them four government soldiers. The fiercest regime assault targeted Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib which was stormed by troops backed by 26 tanks that “took up position to split the town in two,” activist Nureddin al-Abdo told AFP.
Residents cowered indoors as explosions rattled Saraqeb and troops swooped to make arrests, he said from the town where there is a considerable rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) presence.
One civilian and three soldiers died in Saraqeb, the Observatory said.
The army also used mortars to pound the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in the central province of Hama, which troops have been trying to seize for the past two weeks, added the Britain-based monitoring group.
Activists reported fierce overnight clashes between troops and mutineers in and around the capital, after a day of protests under the rallying cry “Damascus, here we come.”
YouTube videos showed a huge night-time demonstration in the Kfar Sousa district and others in several parts of Syria’s second city Aleppo in the north.
The deadly uprising that has gripped Syria for more than a year has largely spared Damascus, but in recent weeks violence has also rocked the capital. The clashes in Damascus province were “very violent” with explosions heard across the region and in the city itself, opposition activist Mohammed al-Shami told AFP.
Security forces also shot dead a civilian in southern Daraa province, where the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime first erupted in March 2011, said the Observatory.
Monitors estimate that at least 9,100 people have been killed in Syria over the past year in violence the regime blames on “armed terrorist groups.”
Syria’s fragmented opposition, meanwhile, announced a two-day meeting from Monday in Istanbul to define their objectives ahead of an April 1 conference of the “Friends of Syria” group there.
The talks aim to produce a “National Pact for a New Syria ,” said main opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council, adding that the key objectives are to rid the country of the “regime’s dictatorship.”
Despite regime pledges of democratic reform, two activists appeared in court on Saturday accused of forming a secret organisation.
“The security forces brought Bahraa Abdel Nabi Hijazi and Anas Abdel Salam before the judges for forming a secret organisation and participating in protests hostile to the regime,” human rights lawyer Michel Shammas told AFP.
Amnesty International says thousands of regime opponents have been arrested over the past year, and that many were believed to have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated.
UN-Arab League envoy Annan arrived in Moscow to shore up vital backing from President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov amid signs of waning Moscow support for its Arab ally. Annan will meet Russian officials on Sunday before visiting China on Tuesday and Wednesday. Both countries have twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions aimed at condemning Assad.
Annan is carrying with him Assad’s answer to a peace plan under which Syria could begin a “political transition” to a representative government, with no specifically defined role for the Syrian leader.
His visit comes days after Moscow backed a non-binding Security Council statement in support of the initiative after making sure it contained no implicit threat of further action should Assad fail to comply.
There are growing signs that Moscow is beginning to lose patience with Assad, despite his commitment to massive new Russian arms purchases and the granting of key naval access to the Mediterranean.
A top Kremlin-linked lawmaker said Assad should treat the UN statement as “an insistent recommendation” whose implementation would determine the future course of relations between the two countries.
“Assad has to take the first step: he must pull the Syrian army out of large cities,” the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs chief Mikhail Margelov said on Thursday.
Russia sells billions of dollars in arms to Syria and analysts warn that Russian interests in Syria are too important for it to allow Western and regional powers to independently dictate the battle-scarred nation’s fate.
The European Union on Friday slapped an assets freeze and travel ban on women in the Assad clan, notably his Britain-born wife Asma.
“We are gratified that the EU has taken yet another step in tightening the noose on the Assad regime,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.