Annan holds peace talks with Assad
Syria has launched a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition in the rebellious north, bombarding its main city with tank shells from all sides and clashing with rebel fighters struggling to hold back an invasion.
President Bashar Assad rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already staggering international efforts for talks to end the conflict. Assad told United Nations (UN) envoy Kofi Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as "terrorist groups" threaten the country.
The opposition's political leadership has also rejected dialogue, saying talk is impossible after a year-long crackdown that the UN estimates has killed more than 7,500 people. That makes it likely that the conflict will continue to edge toward civil war.
Syrian forces have been building up for days around Idlib, the capital of a hilly, agricultural province along the Syria-Turkey border that has been a hotbed of protests against Assad's regime.
On Saturday, troops blasted Idlib for hours with dozens of tank shells as the forces moved to encircle the town. Families fled their homes, carrying blankets and a few other meagre belongings. Others huddled in homes.
Rebel fighters rushed through Idlib's streets, taking cover behind walls to fire on the attackers with automatic weapons, according to the Associated Press. Trucks sped wounded fighters to clinics, and men on one street destroyed speed bumps with shovels so ambulances could drive faster. Many low-level soldiers in the area have joined the opposition and fight along with civilians who have taken up arms as part of the loosely organised Free Syrian Army.
Many fear the offensive in Idlib could end up like the regime's campaign against a rebel-held neighbourhood in the central city of Homs. Troops besieged and shelled Baba Amr for weeks before capturing it on March 1. Activists say hundreds were killed and a UN official who visited the area this week said she was "horrified" by the destruction in the district, now virtually deserted.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 civilians were killed in Idlib province, among 28 killed nationwide. It said five other rebels were killed in fighting elsewhere, and that 19 regime troops were killed in Idlib and outside of Damascus.
The visit to Damascus by Annan, a former UN secretary-general, is the centrepiece of a high-profile international attempt to find a solution to the worsening conflict amid sharp divisions among world powers and Arab countries over how to deal with the crisis.
Annan planned a second round of talks with the Syrian president on Sunday, the UN spokesman's office said in a statement.