Claims that around 1,000 people have been killed by the Syrian government over the past eight days were made yesterday as violent clashes continued to erupt across the country.
The estimate of the death toll was made by the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), as a deadline for government troops to end their occupations of cities passed.
Under a UN-backed peace plan, the army was supposed to have completely withdrawn from conflict areas by yesterday, with a view to implementing a full-scale ceasefire tomorrow.
The extent of the human cost of the conflict was estimated by SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani, who claimed that 160 people were killed in Syria on Monday alone.
Ms Kodmani told reporters in Geneva that regime forces have used heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, against civilians in apparent defiance of an agreement to begin a ceasefire yesterday.
She said the humanitarian situation on the ground was “dramatically deteriorating” the day after President Assad’s forces were roundly condemned for firing on a refugee camp inside Turkey.
Activist groups said at least 18 people were killed yesterday as more reports of barbarous behaviour filtered through.
Shelling in the city of Homs, a centre of resistance to Mr Assad’s rule, was reported to have killed at least 14 people; while the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people were killed in Kfar Zeita in central Hama province.
Military activity was also reported in Aleppo province in the north and Deraa in the south.
As the deadline slipped by, Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem claimed that some troops had pulled out.
Despite the missed deadline and the continued violence, the international envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan, claimed his peace plan was still “very much alive”.
Speaking in Turkey after visiting refugee camps for people who have fled the fighting in Syria, Mr Annan admitted he had hoped his peace plan “would be further along at this time”.
But he said it was not too late to implement it, and in a letter to the UN Security Council, Mr Annan said every effort had to be made to ensure that Thursday’s ceasefire deadline would be met.
“I believe it’s a bit too early to say that the plan has failed. The plan is still on the table and is a plan we are all fighting to implement,” he said.
“It is a plan the [UN Security] Council has endorsed. It’s a plan the Syrians have endorsed, and from the comments made by the opposition, they are also prepared to go along with it if the government meets its commitments to pull the troops out. So I think the plan is very much alive.”
Mr Annan said sources including “our own intelligence” indicated Syrian troops had moved out of some areas, but were moving to “other areas which have not previously been targets”.
He said there was “rolling military action that we believe should stop”.
The unrest in Syria, which began in March last year, had gone on too long, he said.
Under his plan, sponsored by the UN and the Arab League, Syrian troops were to have completed their withdrawal from population centres and stopped the use of heavy weaponry by Tuesday, ahead of a full ceasefire tomorrow.
Damascus had agreed to the deadline, but on Sunday demanded written guarantees first that its opponents would give up arms, along with a promise from foreign states not to fund them. A collapse of the truce deal brokered by Mr Annan could move Syria closer to an all-out civil war.
Fighting has also spilled over Syria’s borders, and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Syria of infringing its border. He said his country was considering what steps to take in response, including measures “we don’t want to think about”.
Speaking in Moscow, Mr Muallem said the withdrawal had begun in some areas. He added that the ceasefire should be timed to the arrival of international monitors – something Mr Annan said he was working towards.
But Mr Muallem said that “despite all these positive measures we noticed on a daily basis the escalation of opposition by the armed terrorist gangs”.
Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Damascus of using the ceasefire deadline “as a cover for intensified military efforts to crush Syria’s opposition”.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero dismissed Syria’s claims of a withdrawal as “a new expression of this flagrant and unacceptable lie”.
Save the Children chief executive Justin Forysth said: “Children are being killed and wounded as violence continues in Syria, with many more witnessing scenes no child should ever see. The children our teams are receiving in Lebanon are deeply scarred by what they have been through.”
Syrian opposition representatives have said they are committed to the peace plan. Ominously, they have also said that if government troops did not stop firing by Thursday, they would intensify their own operations.