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Devastation follows Syrian attack

A Syrian government attack when troops overran a major opposition stronghold has left behind scenes of destruction, with corpses in the streets, homes razed and shops looted, say opposition activists.

The reports of 40 people dead in Saraqeb since Sunday come as Arab leaders meeting in Baghdad remain deeply divided over how to help solve Syria's crisis.

President Bashar Assad said he has accepted a six-point UN plan brokered by Kofi Annan to resolve the conflict, including a cease-fire, but the opposition is deeply sceptical that he will carry it out.

The fall of Saraqeb, a large town on the main road linking the northern city of Aleppo with the Syrian capital, was the latest in a string of opposition strongholds to fall to ruthless assaults by the better-equipped Syrian military. Activists on Wednesday also reported clashes between Syrian army units and rebels in the country's centre, east and south.

At least four civilians, four soldiers and five army defectors were killed in the central town of Qalaat al-Madiq and nearby villages, activists said, as troops advanced and closed in on rebels. The town, in Hama province, has been battered by heavy machine guns and artillery for days. Activists said the town's historic castle was not spared the shelling.

The military seized Saraqeb overnight after a four-day offensive. Rebel fighters had used it as a base to target army convoys nearby. In Saraqeb, as in other towns and cities recaptured recently by the army, Syrian troops left behind a trail of death and destruction.

The Local Co-ordination Committees network issued an appeal for international humanitarian organizations to urgently visit the town and said there were many unidentified corpses and wounded people there. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the reports and said most of the town's residents had fled along with the rebels. It said more than 40 people had been killed during the fighting over recent days.

Activist Fadi al-Yassin in the northern province of Idlib said the army was now in full control of Saraqeb, stationing snipers on rooftops and conducting searches and raids using civilian cars and taxis to confuse residents.

Elsewhere, three Syrian soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels in the central province of Homs. The Observatory said the fighting broke out when government forces tried to enter the town of Rastan, which is in the hands of army defectors. The activist group also reported clashes in the Deir el-Zour province along the Iraqi border and said government troops fired mortars at the city of Homs.

The fresh violence coincides with a new wave of international diplomacy seeking to end the conflict that the UN says has left more than 9,000 people dead.

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