Visiting UN envoy Kofi Annan met on Saturday with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, as the military launched an assault on the city of Idlib.
Syrian forces have been building up for days around Idlib, which has been a hotbed of protests against Assad's regime, The Associated Press reported.
The report said that as of Saturday morning, 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 meager belongings. Others huddled in homes.
Rebel fighters rushed through Idlib's streets, taking cover behind walls to fire on the attackers with automatic weapons, an AP team in Idlib said. 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 organized Free Syrian Army, the report said.
Many fear the offensive in Idlib could end up like the regime's campaign against a rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs. Troops besieged and shelled Baba Amr for weeks before capturing it on March 1.
Idlib activist Fadi al-Yassin told AP late Saturday said the army had closed off the city's main exits, making harder for civilians to flee. Rebel fighters destroyed six armored trucks in an ambush and shot down one helicopter with a high-caliber machine gun, he said.
“The Free Army will able to keep them out for a while, but if they cannot get more weapons and if the army keeps shelling from outside, they won't be able to hold out,” he said.
“Right now their morale is very high,” added al-Yassin. But, he added, “We worry that what happened in Baba Amr will happen here.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 civilians were killed in Idlib province Saturday, part of 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.
Meanwhile, AP reported, Assad rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already staggering international efforts for talks to end to the conflict.
Assad reportedly told Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as "terrorist groups" threaten the country.
On Friday, the opposition's political leadership also rejected dialogue with Assad, saying talk is impossible after a yearlong crackdown that the UN estimates has killed more than 7,500 people.
Annan planned a second round of talks with the Syrian president on Sunday, the UN spokesperson's office said in a statement.
In his talks Saturday with Assad, the UN statement said, Annan put “several proposals on the table” for stopping violence, gaining access for humanitarian aid deliveries to Syrians and starting an “inclusive political dialogue.”
Assad, however, told Annan the plan was doomed “as long as there are armed terrorist groups that work to spread anarchy and destabilize the country,” AP quoted Syria's state news agency as having reported.