The Syrian army has killed 16 people, including children, during shelling in the town of Souran in the central province of Hama, the British-based rights group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
“The army shelled the town and then stormed it,” the head of the group, Rami Abdelrahman, told Reuters, citing residents.
Hama has been a focal point of Syria’s 14-month uprising against the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
In a separate incident, a roadside bomb exploded in a restive suburb of Damascus as senior UN officials toured the area, blowing off the front of a parked vehicle but causing no casualties.
Visiting UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous and Robert Mood, the chief of UN observers in Syria, were 150 metres away, along with accompanying journalists, when the blast went off in the Douma suburb, engulfing a Toyota pickup car in flames and smoke. It was not immediately clear what the target of the explosion was, but the car was parked near a security checkpoint.
A security official at the checkpoint told the observers that gunmen had targeted two military buses in Douma earlier in the day, wounding more than 30 security agents.
In Damascus, opposition groups reported fighting overnight between government forces and army defectors in the district of Kfar Souseh, a hotbed of dissent against Assad’s regime. The district is a high security area, housing the foreign ministry and several security and intelligence agencies. It has also been the scene of frequent anti-Assad demonstrations since the uprising began.
“Violent clashes broke out between rebel fighters and regime troops at a checkpoint,” the Observatory said in a statement.
Syrian rebels claimed in an internet statement that they carried out a sophisticated attack that killed top political and security officials meeting in the capital. The posting claimed those killed included Assef Shawkat, deputy chief of staff for security affairs; defence minister Dawoud Rajha; interior minister Mohammad al-Shaar; and former defence minister Hasan Turkmani.
Al-Shaar denied the rebel claims at a press conference. Turkmani was interviewed by state-run Syrian TV in his office, saying the claims were “blatant lies”.
Syrian officials rarely respond to claims and statements issued by the opposition and their quick denials were unusual.
The revolt against Assad’s regime started in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests calling for political change. The deadly government crackdown led many opposition supporters to take up arms. Now, the regime is facing an armed insurgency targeting government installations, soldiers and security forces.
In March, the UN said that 9,000 people had been killed. Hundreds more have died since.
Clashes in the heart of the Syrian capital have become more common recently but are still rare compared to other opposition strongholds in Syria that witness deadly violence almost daily.
A ceasefire that was supposed to start last month has never really taken hold, undermining the rest of international envoy Kofi Annan’s plan, which is supposed to lead to talks to end the 15-month crisis.
World powers remain divided on how to end Syria’s crisis. The US and other Western and Arab nations have called for Assad to leave power, and the US and EU have placed increasingly stiff sanctions on Damascus. But with Russia and China blocking significant new UN punishments, US officials are trying to get consensus among other allies about ways to promote Assad’s ouster.
On Sunday, an anti-Syrian cleric and his bodyguard were shot dead in neighbouring Lebanon, where a spillover of Syria’s conflict has inflamed tensions and triggered sectarian fighting in recent days.
The two were on their way to a rally in a remote northern Sunni region when they were shot. The circumstances surrounding their deaths remain unclear but the state-run National News Agency said the sheikh and his guard appeared to have been killed by soldiers after their convoy failed to stop at an army checkpoint.
The deaths could add to the tensions between pro- and anti-Syrian groups in the region, and there were fears of clashes breaking out as the cleric’s supporters blocked roads with burning tyres in protest.
The Lebanese army issued a statement, saying it deeply regretted the incident and that a committee will investigate.