BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces pounded areas in the central province of Homs on Sunday in a renewed push to regain control of rebel-held territories, and activists said at least 38 people were killed in shelling there over the past 24 hours.
The assault focused on the town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, where activists reported at least six people died on Sunday alone. Three others died in shelling of the town of Talbiseh, north of Homs city, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The mortars came down on Qusair by the dozens," said Abu al-Hoda, a Qusair-based activist. He said women and children have been huddled for days in basements of apartment buildings, too fearful to come out. On Saturday, 29 people died in violence across Homs, according to activists.
Also Sunday, Syrian forces unleashed a new round of heavy shelling and sent reinforcements to a mountainous area near the coastal city of Latakia where hundreds of rebels have set up base and which has also been the scene of fierce fighting in recent days.
The fighting between government troops backed by helicopter gunships and armed groups in the area of Haffa began on Tuesday. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Observatory said at least 58 soldiers have been killed and more than 200 wounded in the operation there since.
He said the heavy losses indicate the seriousness of the challenge in the mountainous area where "hundreds" of rebels are entrenched. His estimated death toll could not be independently verified.
State-run news agency SANA said "terrorist groups" in Haffa attacked public and private institutions on Saturday and committed "heinous" crimes against civilians, setting fire to the national hospital and forcing people to leave their homes. It said troops killed a number of them and arrested several others, adding it was still pursuing gunmen and working to restore security to the area.
Six children were among 10 people killed by a shell that exploded in a house where they had taken cover during the fighting in the region on Saturday, the Observatory said.
Thousands have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March last year and activists put the toll at more than 13,000. International envoy Kofi Annan brokered a cease-fire that went into effect on April 12 but has since been violated every day by both sides of the conflict.
Armed rebels have stepped up their attacks on government troops recently, taking their fight against President Bashar Assad to the capital Damascus, which on Friday saw some of the most intense fighting since the 15-month uprising began.
In northern Syria, thousands took part Sunday in the funeral for nine people who died in reported shelling Saturday night of the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province.
Amateur video posted online by activists Sunday showed a large crowd taking part in the funeral procession. The victims were placed on makeshift stretchers which were carried in the streets as people chanted and mourned their death.
Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, elected a Kurdish dissident as its new leader at a meeting in Turkey, a council statement said.
Abdulbaset Sieda, a 56-year-old activist who has been living for many years in exile in Sweden, was the only candidate to replace liberal opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun for the three-month presidency. He was elected unanimously during an SNC meeting Saturday night in Istanbul that stretched into early hours Sunday.
The Paris-based Ghalioun presided over the council since it was created last August but recently offered to step down over mounting criticism of his leadership and repeated renewals of his three-month term. Several prominent Syrian dissidents have quit the group calling it an "autocratic" organization no better than Assad’s authoritarian rule.
They also complained the group was dominated by Islamists, including the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
The Syrian opposition has been hobbled by disorganization and infighting since the popular revolt against Assad began in March 2012. Its international backers have repeatedly appealed for the movement to pull together and work as one unit. The SNC itself has been plagued by infighting, hampering efforts by Western and Arab nations to help the opposition.
Sieda is a secular member of Syria’s minority Kurd community. He is seen as a neutral, consensus figure and has said his priority would be to expand the council to include more opposition figures, particularly from Syria’s religious minorities.
"Our first mission is to continue with the restructuring of the council. We will also be working on establishing and strengthening relations with the other opposition parties," he said.
His elevation to the post of SNC chief could be part of an attempt to appeal to Syria’s significant Kurdish minority, which has largely stayed on the sidelines of the uprising. The community is deeply suspicious that Sunni Arabs who dominate the opposition will be no more likely to provide them greater rights than what they have had under Assad’s regime.
"He is an academic. He’s also well-known, a moderate man. We shouldn’t claim that he has Islamic tendencies or secular tendencies. He has been approved and accepted by everyone," Abdel Hamid Al Attassi, a member of the SNC, said of Sieda.