* Activists say at least 80 dead in past 36 hours
* Damascus puts overall death toll at 6,044
* Homs quarter bombarded for 17 days
* U.N. advance peace-monitoring team due in Syria
By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT, April 4 Syrian opposition activists
accused forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of bombarding
rebel areas on Wednesday as a U.N. mission was expected to
arrive in Damascus in a first step to implement an international
Activists said at least 80 people have been killed since
Tuesday despite the imminent arrival of the advance team from
the United Nations peacekeeping department.
The advance mission is part of the latest international
effort to end a year of bloodshed that began with peaceful
protests against Assad's authoritarian rule in March 2011.
Russia, an ally of Assad, said Syrian forces had begun
withdrawing from cities and towns in accordance with the peace
plan of international mediator Kofi Annan. However, Syrian
activists said troops and police loyal to Assad had pressed on
with their campaign of raids and arrests in rebel areas,
accompanied by bombardments, gun battles and sniper attacks.
"Since this morning they have been shelling Khalidiya
neighbourhood, that is in its 17th day," said activist Hadi
Abdullah by telephone from Homs, the city of one million which
has suffered most in the uprising. "Whatever it is that hits the
area leaves a horrible sulphur smell, like rotten eggs."
Human rights group Amnesty International said it had counted
232 deaths since Syria accepted Annan's plan on March 27.
Assad's government issued its latest official death toll for
the 12-month uprising. It told the United Nations that 6,044
people had been killed, of whom 2,566 were soldiers and police.
The United Nations itself says Assad's forces have killed
more than 9,000 people in the past year.
The mission, headed by Norwegian General Robert Mood, is
part of efforts to implement a deal between Assad and U.N.-Arab
League envoy Annan for an April 10 withdrawal of Syrian forces,
to be followed by a ceasefire by rebel forces within 48 hours.
During the visit, it is expected to discuss deploying about
250 U.N. monitors to oversee a ceasefire. But Assad's acceptance
of a troop withdrawal has met with scepticism among the Syrian
opposition and its Western and Arab supporters.
"The Syrian authorities have said they will do that by April
10," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in London.
"There is no sign of them doing it so far. Attacks on the
citizens, the civilians of their country have continued, the
murder, oppression, and torture of the regime has continued..."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said the
withdrawal was already underway. "Kofi Annan is continuing his
efforts, the Syrian side has begun withdrawing forces from
cities. The main thing now is for all sides to carry out Annan's
proposals," Interfax news agency quoted Gatilov as saying in
Gatilov's boss, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, attacked the
"Friends of Syria" group of Western and Arab nations which met
at the weekend, saying it was undermining Annan's peace mission.
"Everyone has supported Kofi Annan's plan, but decisions at
the 'Friends of Syria' group meeting aimed at arming the
opposition and at new sanctions undermine peace efforts,"
state-run Itar-Tass quoted Lavrov as saying.
"It is clear as day that even if the opposition is armed to
the teeth, it will not defeat the Syrian army, and there will
simply be slaughter and mutual destruction for long, long
years," he added.
Despite its pro-Assad tone, some diplomats have said Moscow
has grown increasingly frustrated with Damascus and its failure
to end the uprising.
"Russia believes regime change in Syria would result in an
Islamist regime after a great deal of bloodshed," one senior
diplomat told Reuters.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is due in Moscow
for talks on April 10, Russia's Foreign ministry said.
DAY OF VIOLENCE
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a
British-based monitor which collates reports from inside Syria,
said 58 civilians and 18 soldiers were killed on Tuesday.
It said 20 civilians died in Homs province, including 15
killed in bombardment, shooting and sniper fire in Homs city.
In Idlib province, 20 civilians and seven soldiers were
killed in clashes in Taftanaz village, east of Idlib city. Rami
Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory, said rebel fighters had
hit at least two of the tanks bombarding the village.
In Homs province on Wednesday, seven people were killed
during clashes, the Observatory reported.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said "several terrorists"
and three security men were killed in Taftanaz. "Armed terrorist
groups ... were attacking citizens, and perpetrating acts of
killing, kidnapping and planting explosives," it said.
"At a poultry farm in a Dir Baalba orchard (Homs province),
the terrorists killed a number of citizens in cold blood,
mutilating and burning their bodies after kidnapping them. The
terrorists also killed four women at one house in the same
neighbourhood after storming it," SANA said.
Accounts of the violence could not be verified because
Syria's government restricts access to independent journalists.