Activists: 74 killed in ongoing Syria offensives

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In this Friday, April 6, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army fighters try to spot a sniper during fighting with Syrian troops in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Syrian government shelling and offensives against rebel-held towns killed dozens of people across the country on Saturday, activists said, as the U.S. posted online satellite images of troop deployments that cast further doubt on whether the regime intends to comply with an internationally sponsored peace plan. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government shelling and offensives against rebel-held towns killed at least 74 people across the country on Saturday, activists said, as the U.S. posted online satellite images of troop deployments that cast further doubt on whether the regime intends to comply with an internationally sponsored peace plan.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has accepted a cease-fire deadline brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday and for both government and rebels to lay down their arms by 6 a.m. local time Thursday.

But the escalating violence of the past few days has fueled accusations that Assad is rushing to stamp out as much of the year-old uprising against him as he can before next week's cease-fire.

The Syrian government said it has begun to withdraw forces ahead of the cease-fire but activists say no significant pullouts have taken place and troops, checkpoints and snipers remain in almost all major flashpoint towns and cities.

"They are systematically trying to crush the revolt wherever they can and regardless of the human cost," said activist Mohammad Saeed in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said the Syrian government appears to have pulled back some of its forces from towns and cities but in other places has kept in place or simply shifted around troops and armored vehicles. He said he was basing his information on satellite images before and after the alleged pullouts which were posted on the U.S. Embassy Facebook page Saturday.

Arrests, sweeps, and the artillery bombardment of opposition strongholds have continued, Ford's statement said.

"This is not the reduction in offensive Syrian government security operations that all agree must be the first step for the Annan initiative to succeed," the late Friday statement said.

"The regime and the Syrian people should know that we are watching. The regime cannot hide the truth," it added.

Ford was forced to leave Syria in February citing security concerns, and the U.S. Embassy there was closed indefinitely.

Western leaders along with the Syrian opposition have cast doubt on Assad's intentions, suggesting he is playing for time and is not serious about the plan, which aims to pave the way for talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution.

The government has launched offensives in several parts of the country in the past few days in a desperate attempt to crush the rebels.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 74 people were killed across Syria on Saturday, including at least 40 in government shelling and clashes in the village of al-Latamneh in the central Hama province. The grass-roots Local Coordination Committees put the day's death toll at 121, including 59 in the Hama area.

The Syrian government restricts access of foreign journalists, and the activists' accounts cannot be independently verified.

An amateur video posted by activists on the Internet showed al-Latamneh residents crying "Allahu Akbar" as they held up the body of a baby with bloodied clothes and what appears to be a bullet wound to the chest. Another video showed the bodies of several men covered in white sheets lined up on the ground.

In the nearby province of Homs, activists also reported shelling of the rebel-held areas of Rastan, Deir Baalabeh and Qusair, where they said at least three people, including a mother and her son, were killed.

The Observatory also said 13 unidentified bodies were found in Deir Baalabeh and 10 in Hreitan in the northern province of Idlib.

In other violence, Lebanese security officials said six people were killed and 21 wounded in a rocket attack on a Lebanese bus after it crossed into Syria Saturday. The bus was carrying pilgrims to Iraq and was struck after it crossed the Joussiyeh border crossing in eastern Lebanon into Syria.

The officials said five Syrians and a Lebanese were killed in the attack. It was not immediately clear who fired the rocket, or how many of the dead were on the bus or bystanders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the April 10 timeline "is not an excuse for continued killing." In statements made Friday, he urged the government to "immediately and unconditionally" cease all military actions against the Syrian people.

The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that the fighting, which the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people, will end anytime soon. The country appears to be spiraling toward civil war — a fearsome development that could touch off a regional conflagration.

Ambassador Ford urged Assad to allow a U.N. monitoring force into the country and to give it full access to investigate the regime's compliance with the peace plan.

In other developments Saturday, a major Islamic organization said it will raise $70 million for humanitarian relief in Syria, estimating that some 1 million people there, out of a population of 23 million, are in need of aid. The Jiddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation — comprised of 57 Muslim majority nations, including Syria — said the aid will include food and medical supplies.

OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said some of the help will go to Syrian farmers and those displaced by violence. OIC representatives visited Syria last month.


Associated Press writer Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed reporting.