BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian troops killed at least 31 people and insurgents killed six soldiers on Tuesday, opposition activists said, on the day President Bashar al-Assad was to withdraw forces from cities 48 hours ahead of the first ceasefire of the 13-month-old conflict.
Activists said 26 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Homs in an army bombardment of the city’s Bayada and Khalidiya districts. State media said over 30 security personnel killed by rebels had been buried. Government restrictions on media hamper independent verification of such accounts.
“They are attacking Bayada with mortars from three different locations. People have taken refuge in some schools and now some of the schools were hit,” said an activist calling himself Abu Yasser. “We have at least 20 martyrs and 70 wounded, most of them women and children,” he told Reuters by telephone.
An earlier report from activists said six people were killed by army shelling in the Homs district of Khalidiya. Four were identified by residents in a field hospital, but two were disfigured beyond recognition.
A 220-second video posted on YouTube by activists filming from a rooftop in Homs recorded mortar rounds crashing into the Khalidiya and Bayada districts about every 10 seconds. Spouts of pulverized debris burst high into the air with each impact and plumes of smoke drifted over the rooftops.
Another video shot by flashlight showed the wounded receiving emergency aid in the darkness of what appeared to be a basement, blood splattering the tiled floor.
A civilian was killed in the Bab Tadmor quarter of Homs, and four people were killed in a military operation in Kafar Zeita north of the city of Hama, said Rami Abdelrahman of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
He said six soldiers were killed early in the day in attacks on two checkpoints on the desert highway running through the eastern town of Marqada, south of the Turkish border.
The state news agency SANA on Tuesday reported the burials of 33 “army and law enforcement martyrs ... targeted by armed terrorist groups”. SANA reported 25 army and police funerals on the previous day. Those figures would raise the official death toll among the security forces to over 2,600.
In the days leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, violence intensified and daily death tolls were often over 100. Syria says it has already pulled back some of its troops from the cities in keeping with its undertaking to United Nations and Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan.
His peace plan calls for rebel forces to stop shooting as the army withdraws so that all forms of violence cease at dawn on Thursday.
The Observatory, a British-based information clearing house that has collated reports on the violence in Syria for the past year, said there was no firm indication on Tuesday of the troop withdrawals that Annan’s plan calls for.
Activists said the Homs bombardment began at breakfast time.
One 90-second video recorded surreptitiously showed a group of soldiers in combat gear clustered on a corner at a normally busy intersection in Homs. There was no one else on the streets.
There were no immediate reports of guerrilla actions from the rebel Free Syrian Army, whose commanders have said they will order a ceasefire only if they are satisfied that Assad’s forces have indeed pulled back and stopped offensives.
The Observatory said there was an overnight bombardment in Hama and the town of Mara in the northern province of Aleppo.
In Douma, a suburb of the capital Damascus, an activist said tanks were still on the fringes of town on Tuesday morning. A clash between rebels and the army was reported in southern Deraa, where the uprising began 13 months ago.
Security forces and the army remained stationed in Deraa, said an activist who called himself Abu Firas, and security checkpoints still separated districts of the old city. He said: “The troops at checkpoints are appearing in strength to say ‘we are present’.”
Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Dominic Evans in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald