Opposition districts in the city of Homs and nearby towns came under a sustained artillery barrage less than 24 hours after Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, announced that President Bashar al-Assad had accepted his initiative.
Under the terms of the plan, government forces were expected to begin an immediate withdrawal of tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles from towns and cities, completing the process by next Tuesday. A full ceasefire, which would see rebel forces also withdraw, is meant to follow within two days.
The Syrian government claimed that a troop withdrawal was under way but rebels and independent witnesses said the reality was very different.
A convoy of armoured personnel carriers was seen advancing on the town of Dael in the southern province of Deraa. Residents said that government soldiers had burnt down homes in the town.
Heavy fighting — some of which was reportedly initiated by the rebels — was reported in Hama province, in villages near the northern city of Idlib and in the greater Damascus area.
Rebel commanders claimed that the Assad regime was seeking to capture as much territory as possible before the truce came into effect, a strategy they said was doomed to fail.
“He thinks he can win more time to take control of all Syrian cities,” Adel al-Omari, an opposition activist in Dael, told the Associated Press.
“This won’t happen, because as soon as he withdraws his tanks from the cities, the people will come out and push to topple the regime.”
Predictions of Mr Assad’s imminent downfall also came from his estranged uncle Rifaat, who told the BBC that the president was unlikely to survive much longer.
Rifaat al-Assad, who has lived in enforced exile in Europe for more than 20 years, is a prominent critic of the regime despite being linked to atrocities of his own in connection with the killing of tens of thousands of people during an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982.
Despite such claims, the Syrian leader appears to have regained the initiative after dealing the rebels a series of heavy battlefield defeats in recent months, most notably in Baba Amr, a district of Homs.
Fresh questions over Mr Assad’s sincerity were raised yesterday by Amnesty International, which reported that 13 secondary school pupils were arrested and beaten in front of their peers in the town of Daraya on Sunday.
“There are thousands of people still in detention across Syria, many held incommunicado, in danger of being tortured, and without access to lawyers,” said Ann Harrison, Amnesty’s Middle East deputy director.
“Continuing to hold people in such conditions, and making new arrests like this, raises serious questions about how serious the government is about respecting its commitments under the Annan plan.”
Although activist groups said that 18 people were killed yesterday, the recent surge of government military action does perversely suggest that Mr Assad will make at least a token attempt to abide by the Annan plan — once he has secured as much territory as possible.
The initiative does not specifically call on the president to stand down, and as such could offer him a chance of remaining in power, although diplomats say that Western powers will continue to call for his resignation.