Syrian troops have shelled a village in the south of the country and clashed with army defectors holed up there, according to activists. The violence is reported to have left a 15-year-old boy and five government soldiers dead.
The clashes in Hirak on Tuesday were some of the worst in recent times in Daraa province, birthplace of the uprising against President . Explosions shook the village as shells slammed into residential areas suspected of sheltering defectors. Even mosques were targeted, activists said.
"The clashes are very intense and have been going on since the morning," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.
The operation in Daraa began days after Syrian forces captured the key rebel-held neighbourhood of Baba Amr in central Homs province.
The assault on Homs was accompanied by a steady rise in international demands for Assad to stop the bloodshed and give up power immediately. On Monday, the US senator John McCain called for air strikes against , saying the United States had a moral and strategic obligation to force out Assad and his loyalists. The US administration has said Assad must go but that it will not intervene militarily.
A video posted online by activists on Tuesday shows what was said to be the inside of the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque in Hirak. Rubble litters the mosque's entrance, doors are blown from their frames and shattered glass covers the floor. An unidentified man on camera says a tank fired on the mosque after village residents sought refuge there.
Another video shows men, women and children fleeing a building after it appears to be hit by a shell. Heavy automatic gunfire is heard in the background. A third video shows a man with a deep gash in this thigh that the video says was caused by shrapnel from a tank shell.
Abdul-Rahman said the army was fighting a large number of army defectors in Hirak. He said the rebels ambushed an armoured personnel carrier, killing five soldiers and wounding several. He and the Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), another activist group, said a 15-year-old boy had been killed by snipers.
Security forces were conducting raids in pursuit of defectors and activists, making arbitrary arrests and burning homes, the LCC said. The group reported at least 21 deaths across Syria on Tuesday.
In Damascus, a special Chinese envoy to Syria is expected to visit and press the regime for a ceasefire.
China has remained a key Syrian ally throughout the uprising against Assad. As international condemnation of Assad's deadly crackdown on dissent has grown, China and Russia have protected Syria from condemnation by the UN security council. Both countries fear such a resolution could lead to military intervention against Assad, as it did last year against Muammar Gaddafi of Libya.
Beijing remains firmly opposed to any foreign intervention in Syria. Li Huaqing, a former Chinese ambassador to Syria, will meet government officials during his two-day visit. He is not expected to meet figures from the opposition.
The regime agreed on Monday to allow visits by two other prominent international emissaries it had previously rebuffed: the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, the new special envoy to Syria; and the UN humanitarian chief, Baroness Amos.
Annan is due to arrive in Damascus on Friday representing the UN and the Arab League. Amos is to arrive on Wednesday and leave on Friday.
Amos said the aim of her visit would be "to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies".
In a message welcoming her visit, Syria said she would be able to visit "some areas" – making it unlikely that she will see the places hardest hit by Assad's forces, such as Baba Amr. Syrian authorities have not allowed Red Cross aid teams to enter the area despite assurances that they would be able to do so. Activists accuse the regime of trying to hide the area's destruction.
A Syrian Red Crescent official said Syrian authorities were citing security concerns for the delay. "The Syrian government has informed us that it is cleaning the area from explosives and mines to ensure safe access for us," Khaled Erq Sousi, the head of operations in Syria, told the Associated Press. He said Red Crescent volunteers were continuing their mission by distributing humanitarian aid to the village of Abel, six miles from Homs.
The UN says more than 7,500 people have been killed since Syria's uprising started in March last year. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.