Fierce clashes rage in southern Syria

BEN HUBBARD ZEINA KARAM Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian troops shelled a southern village and clashed with army defectors holed up inside in violence that killed a 15-year-old boy and five government soldiers, activists said Tuesday.

The clashes in Hirak were some of the worst lately in Daraa province, birthplace of the uprising to oust authoritarian President Bashar Assad. Explosions shook the village as shells slammed into residential areas suspected of sheltering defectors. Even mosques were targeted, activists said.

"The clashes are very intense and have been going on since the morning," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.

The operation in Daraa began just days after Syrian forces captured a key rebel-held neighborhood in central Homs province, another opposition stronghold. Government troops intensely shelled Homs for four weeks before they captured the Baba-Amr neighborhood in the city of Homs, wresting it from rebels who had held it for months. Activists said hundreds were killed in the month-long offensive.

The assault on Homs was accompanied by a steady rise in international demands for Assad to stop the bloodshed and give up power immediately. On Monday, U.S. Sen. John McCain called for airstrikes against Syria, saying the United States has a moral and strategic obligation to force out Assad and his loyalists. The U.S. administration has said Assad must got but has said it will not intervene militarily.

A video posted online by activists Tuesday shows what it said was the inside of the Abu Bakr al-Saddiq mosque in Hirak. The video showed rubble littering the mosque's entryway, doors blown from their frames and shattered glass covering the floor.

An unidentified man on camera says a tank fired on the mosque after town residents sought refuge there.

Another video shows men, women and children fleeing a building after it appears to be hit by a shell. Heavy automatic gunfire is heard in the background. A third video shows a man with a deep gash in this thigh that the video says was caused by shrapnel from a tank shell.

Abdul-Rahman said the army was fighting a large number of army defectors in Hirak.

He said the rebels ambushed an armored personnel carrier, killing five soldiers and wounding several. He and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said a 15-year-old boy was killed by snipers.

Security forces were conducting raids in pursuit of defectors and activists, making arbitrary arrests and burning homes, the LCC said. The group reported at least 21 deaths across Syria Tuesday.

In Damascus, a special Chinese envoy to Syria was expected to visit and press the regime for a cease-fire.

China has remained a key Syrian ally throughout the nearly year-old uprising against Assad. As international condemnation of Assad's deadly crackdown on dissent has grown, China and Russia have protected Syria from condemnation by the U.N. Security Council. Both countries fear such a resolution could lead to military intervention against Assad, as it did last year against Moammar Gadhafi of Libya.

Beijing remains firmly opposed to any foreign intervention in Syria, a close ally of Iran.

Li Huaqing, a former Chinese ambassador to Syria, will meet with government officials during his two-day visit. He is not expected to meet figures from the opposition seeking to overthrow Assad.

The regime agreed Monday to allow visits by two other prominent international emissaries it had previously rebuffed -- former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the new special envoy to Syria, and U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

Annan is to reach Damascus on Friday representing the U.N. and the Arab League. Amos is to arrive Wednesday and leave Friday.

Amos said the aim of her visit is "to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies."

In a message welcoming her visit, Syria said she would be able to visit "some areas" -- making it unlikely she will see some of the places hardest-hit by Assad's forces, such as the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs.

Syrian authorities have not allowed Red Cross aid teams to enter the area since then, despite assurances they would be able to. Activists accuse the regime of trying to hide the area's destruction.

A Syrian Red Crescent official said Syrian authorities were citing security concerns for the delay.

"The Syrian government has informed us that it is cleaning the area from explosives and mines to ensure safe access for us," head of operations in Syria Khaled Erq Sousi told The Associated Press. He said Red Crescent volunteers were continuing their mission by distributing humanitarian aids to the village of Abel, some 10 kilometers from Homs.

The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed since Syria's uprising started in March 2011. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.