BEIRUT — Syrian soldiers battled anti-government rebels in half of the country's 14 provinces on Monday, three days before a United Nations-backed ceasefire is to take effect, anti-government activists said. More than 100 people were killed across the country Monday, according to the activists.
A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, reached by phone in Damascus, said the surge in violence in recent days had worsened conditions for tens of thousands of civilians who are in desperate need of safe shelter and food.
"Humanitarian needs are growing because of the unrest," said the spokeswoman, Rabab al Rifai.
Activists in the central Syrian city of Hama reported 29 civilians killed by shelling in Latemneh, a village where activists reported more than 70 people were killed on Saturday. Twenty-five of the victims in Latemneh on Monday were woman and children, activists said.
The Syrian government has largely prevented foreign reporters from entering Syria to cover the violence, and the activists' claims could not be confirmed independently. But refugees fleeing to Turkey in recent days have described a stepped-up campaign ahead of the ceasefire against anti-government rebels and activists that has included the use of helicopter gunships and tanks.
Under the deal, brokered by the United Nations' special envoy for Syria, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the government is to begin withdrawing tanks and troops from restive cities on Tuesday, with rebel forces ceasing combat by Thursday. But doubts about whether the ceasefire actually would go into effect were raised Sunday when Syria said its commitment was contingent on a written guarantee from rebel groups that they would put down their weapons. Most analysts believe that condition is impossible to meet because of the decentralized nature of the rebellion.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday that 801 people had died in Syrian violence since President Bashar Assad agreed to the peace plan March 27. The report did not break down the full list of casualties, but it said the number included 22 members of the Syrian military and 100 women and children.
The Syrian state news agency SANA announced that funeral services took place Monday for 15 soldiers and 10 police officers who'd been killed in fighting with rebels outside Damascus, the capital, and in the provinces of Daraa, Lattakia, Aleppo, Idlib and Deir Ezzor. Separately, SANA reported that nine police officers and an army lieutenant had been killed by gunfire in the al Sukkari region of Aleppo.
Since March 28, SANA has published the names of 90 police officers and soldiers who it said had died in combat with anti-government groups.
Also on Monday, New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report detailing more than 100 extrajudicial executions by Syrian government troops and pro-government militias known locally as "shabiha," or "ghosts," while International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Rifai said the Syrian government has agreed to give the ICRC access to some of the 20,000 prisoners believed to have been swept up since anti-government unrest began a year ago.
Activists and former prisoners have said torture is routine in the prisons. Rifai said the Syrian agreement to Red Cross visits had come last week. "We expect (the ICRC visits) will begin in late April or the beginning of May with visits to Aleppo Central Prison," she said.
The victims of the executions described in the Human Rights Watch report were 85 civilians and 16 captured and or wounded members of the Free Syrian Army, the name taken by most of the lightly armed and highly localized groups of army defectors and volunteers who have taken up arms. Human Rights Watch said it focused only on cases where its researchers were able to directly interview eyewitnesses. Activists say the number of such executions is much larger.
"It's definitely not exhaustive," Nadim Houry, the director of Human Rights Watch's Beirut office, said of the study, which included cases from around the central Syrian city of Homs and the northern city of Idlib. "It is probably happening in other places as well. There seems to be an ingrained culture of impunity amongst the army and the security forces."
"You have to wait until people enter a neighboring country or get to somewhere it's safe enough in Syria to speak with them," he said.
Increasingly, no areas inside the country appear to be fully held by the rebels, a major reversal of anti-Assad fortunes since the beginning of February, when the government began its current campaign to drive rebel groups out of their strongholds.
The military, however, appears not to have been able fully to dislodge rebels from Homs, where it has been chasing now-smaller bands of rebels from one neighborhood to another and relying on heavy shelling rather than on-the-ground military operations.
Frequently since armed combat began last fall, government troops have raided areas and arrested or brutalized local populations, only to see the guerrillas move to the countryside or regroup elsewhere.
Syrian forces have tightened their control of the country's borders with Turkey and Lebanon in an effort to cut off areas that had been used by smugglers to bring arms and fighters into Syria and to evacuate the wounded. Refugees also use the routes to stream out of conflict zones.
Despite the difficulty of crossing Syria's borders, nearly 3,000 refugees have entered Turkey in the past week, bringing the number of refugees in camps on the Turkish side of the border to more than 24,000.
On Monday, the Turkish government accused Syrian troops firing across the Turkish border of wounding two Syrian refugees who already had crossed into Turkey. Two Turks, a police officer and a translator, were also wounded in the incident, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian troops were apparently shooting at rebels who were retreating to Turkey after a cross-border attack that killed six Syrian soldiers.
Turkey formally protested to Syria, warning its chief representative in Ankara that "if this persists, we are ready to take all measures," Unal told McClatchy.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davitoglu, on a visit to China, personally informed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the top U.N. diplomats of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China of the incident.
Unal said the border incident occurred after a firefight in the middle of the night in or near the town of Azaz, about 30 miles north of Aleppo on the Syrian side of the border.
The spokesman said a group of 30 to 40 refugees, among them 21 wounded, was seen crossing into Turkey about 9 a.m. Monday in the direction of a Turkish refugee camp near the Turkish town of Kilis. Two of the wounded died just after they reached Turkish territory, he said.
Refugees at the camp complex spotted the group, and some headed in the direction of the frontier when the shots were fired. It wasn't clear if the shots were being fired at the newly arrived refugees or those heading to the border from the camp. Unal said nothing was known yet about the earlier battle that took place at about 3:30 a.m. inside Syria.
The incident came a day before U.N. envoy Annan is scheduled to visit the area.
Meanwhile, in Wadi Khalid, on the Lebanese border with Syria, a Lebanese television cameraman was reportedly killed by fire from the Syrian side of the border during what SANA said was a firefight. Wadi Khalid and surrounding areas are now home to more than 7,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the fighting. The United Nations estimates that there are 10,000 Syria refugees throughout Lebanon, with activists saying the number is higher.
The Jordanian government says that as many as 80,000 Syrians are now in that country, and the U.N. estimated last month that about 250,000 Syrians had been displaced inside the country.
Syrian activists say nearly 11,000 civilians and members of the Syrian military and security forces have been killed March 2011. The government has said the rebels have killed more than 3,000 soldiers, police and civilians. It's unclear whether those deaths are in addition to those the anti-government activists reported or whether there's overlap between the numbers.
(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Washington Bureau reporter Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed.)
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.