AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The bodies of more than 30 civilians — some of them women and children — were found Sunday in the streets of the Syrian town of Daraya southwest of Damascus, where President Bashar Assad's forces have been waging a fierce assault against rebel holdouts. The latest deaths brought the toll in Daraya to more than 120 killed in the past week alone.
The British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 32 dead bodies were found in the streets and they had been killed by "gunfire and summary executions." Among them were three women and two children, the group said.
Regime forces also used combat helicopters and tanks to pound rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo and the restive southern town of Daraa along the Jordanian border. The Observatory said it had reports of fatalities, but did not have exact numbers yet.
Activists say more than 20,000 people have died in 17 months of fighting in Syria, as an uprising that started with peaceful protests against Assad's rule has morphed into a civil war.
In Damascus, Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa appeared in public for the first time in several weeks for a meeting with a senior Iranian official, ending rumors that he had defected. Reporters saw him get out of his car and walk to his office for a meeting with Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of Iran's powerful parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy.
There have been a series of high-level defections from the Assad regime in the past few months.
Al-Sharaa was last seen at the funeral of four top security officials killed in a blast in Damascus on July 18. Since then, there had been rumors that he defected to Jordan, though al-Sharaa's office and Jordan repeatedly denied he defected. He was seen at the door of his office, shaking hands with Boroujerdi, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. He said al-Sharaa looked serious and steered away from reporters covering the meeting. He did not make a statement.
Pan-Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya reported that air force intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Jamil Hassan had been assassinated, but a senior government official denied it. The official insisted on anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media. The Al Arabiya report said Hassan, a powerful member of Assad's inner circle and religious Alawite minority, was shot dead Saturday by one of his aides who defected to the opposition.
Addounia TV, a pro-Syrian government channel, also denied the report. It said Hassan is "fine and the news about his killing is absolutely untrue."
In neighboring Jordan, officials say the country is bracing for a mass exodus of Syrians in the wake of intensified fighting.
Jordan appealed for increased international assistance to 160,000 Syrian refugees it is hosting. Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said the refugee influx has swelled even further, with more than 2,300 Syrians crossing into Jordan on Friday — the largest arrival in a single day since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011.
"The number of refugees is growing and our limited resources are thinning," Maaytah said. "The international community should come to the aid of the Syrian refugees."
The United Nations refugee agency said it has yet to secure half of the $190 million aid appeal launched earlier this year to support Jordan and other countries hosting some 200,000 registered Syrian refugees.
Jordanian police spokesman Col. Mohammed Khatib said a Syrian rocket fell in the northern border town of Ramtha late Saturday, but no injuries were reported. It was the seventh rocket to fall in Jordan in five days, underlining the intensity of the army assault on southern Syrian towns such as Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising against Assad.
A police statement said 200 Syrian refugees pelted stones on Jordanian security guarding their desert camp late Saturday, wounding several policemen. The refugees were protesting poor conditions at the camp.
Associated Press reporter Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.