Syrian troops stormed the rebel stronghold of Idlib on Saturday after shelling the city for several days, confirming fears of an assault after another rebel redoubt was overrun last week, monitors said.
The attack came as peace envoy Kofi Annan was in Damascus seeking an end to a year-long crackdown on dissent that has cost an estimated more than 8,500 lives in what was described as positive talks with President Bashar al-Assad.
“Troop carriers entered the city of Idlib as clashes raged” between the regular army and rebels, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP in Beirut.
The army heavily shelled Idlib before sweeping into the city, where 14 civilians were killed, Abdel Rahman said, adding that dozens were wounded and 150 arrested by regime forces.
Earlier, he said 16 rebels were killed in an army ambush as they headed for Idlib and that four regime soldiers died in a separate incident.
In all, the Observatory said 62 — mostly soldiers and rebels — had been killed on Saturday across Syria.
Local activist Milad Fadl said Saturday’s “bombardment began at 5 am (0300 GMT). The shelling is very, very heavy.”
Abdel Rahman said “it’s the heaviest bombardment since troop reinforcements were sent to Idlib earlier this week.”
Regime forces have been massing around Idlib for days to root out rebel Free Syrian Army fighters who are entrenched in the province of the same name.
On Friday, armoured units surrounded the hilly district of Jabal al-Zawiya in the province, stormed one village and attacked others, reportedly killing scores of people.
Abdel Rahman said Friday the army was hunting down rebels in the area because “the largest number of deserters are in Jabal al-Zawiya.”
Activists had expressed fear that Idlib could suffer the same fate as the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr, which was stormed by government troops on March 1 after a month of shelling.
Just hours before the assault, President Bashar al-Assad promised Annan that he would back any “honest” peace bid but warned dialogue would fail if “terrorist groups” remained.
In Cairo, meanwhile, Russian and Arab foreign ministers called for an end to the violence “whatever its source.”
Syrian state television said there was a “positive atmosphere” to the meeting between Assad and the former UN chief, on his first visit since being named United Nations-Arab League envoy on the conflict.
“Syria is ready to bring success to any honest bid to find a solution,” the official SANA news agency quoted Assad as telling Annan.
But “no dialogue or political process can succeed as long as there are terrorist groups that are working to sow chaos and destabilise the country by attacking civilians and soldiers,” he added.
A UN statement said Annan had expressed “grave concern” to Assad over the deadly crackdown and “urged the president to take concrete steps to end the current crisis.”
The former UN secretary general “put several proposals on the table regarding stopping the violence and the killing, access for humanitarian agencies and the ICRC, release of detainees and the start of an inclusive political dialogue,” said a UN statement.
It gave no details, but said Annan had described his first talks as “candid and comprehensive.”
Annan has the support of Damascus allies Beijing and Moscow and his mission has been welcomed by both the Syrian government and the opposition.
But Russia said its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear to him at a meeting in Cairo that Moscow was opposed to “crude interference” in Syria’s affairs.
“A particular emphasis was placed on the inadmissibility of trampling on international legal norms, including through crude interference in Syria’s internal affairs,” the foreign ministry in Moscow said.
Russia’s stance drew an angry response from Gulf states when Lavrov joined the Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.
Saudi Arabia’s Saud al-Faisal accused Moscow of giving Damascus a “licence to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people, without compassion or mercy.”
And Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani voiced exasperation with the position of Russia and China, saying the killing of civilians in Syria amounted to “genocide” and that a ceasefire was “not enough.”
“Our patience and the patience of the world has run out,” he said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Annan would demand an immediate end to the violence and access for aid agencies to besieged protest cities to evacuate casualties and provide desperately needed relief supplies to civilians trapped by the fighting.
Lavrov said after the Cairo meeting that he and his Arab counterparts wanted “an end to the violence whatever its source.”
Reading out a joint statement, Lavrov and Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad said they also agreed on setting up a mechanism for “objective monitoring” in the country and had agreed on no foreign intervention there.
They also called for “unhindered humanitarian access” in Syria and support for the mission of Annan to Damascus.
Lavrov also reiterated Russia’s opposition to an Arab- and Western-backed draft Security Council resolution that it has dubbed “unbalanced” because it does not contain a call for a simultaneous halt to violence by government forces and the rebels.
In Copenhagen, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said “it is scandalous to consider on the same level citizens who are trying to defend themselves and a regime that is fighting them, that orders snipers to shoot at women and children to create a climate of terror.”