Syrian troops on Tuesday pressed an assault on rebel strongholds in the Turkish border region, as the opposition urged foreign military intervention after dozens of women and children were killed in Homs.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces used heavy machineguns to rake the town of El-Baraa in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, a rebel bastion in the northwestern Idlib province.
The Observatory said armed rebels had hit back before dawn with an attack on a military checkpoint in the town of Maaret al-Numan in which at least 10 Syrian soldiers were killed.
In Khan Sheikhun, another rebel bastion in Idlib, gunmen attacked troops in heavy military vehicles, damaging two of them and seizing others, the Observatory said.
The army has since March 9 mounted an offensive in the mountainous region near the Turkish border in a bid to seize control of the city of Idlib, which bears the same name as the province, and other towns where the rebels are based.
Dozens of people have been killed since last week in on-off army shelling of Idlib city, which is now partly controlled by the regime, and in violence across the province.
On the political front, diplomats in New York said President Bashar al-Assad has until Tuesday to give a response to peace proposals made by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who held two rounds of talks with the Syrian leader over the weekend.
Annan said on leaving Damascus that he had made "concrete proposals" to Assad on ending the killing in Syria and securing humanitarian access to protest cities.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the Syrian president had agreed to give an answer within "48 hours" to Annan. Diplomatic sources confirmed that a response was expected by early Tuesday.
Activists have denounced the "massacre" of 47 women and children whose bodies were found in the flashpoint city of Homs, but major powers on Monday remained divided over what action to take amid a growing clamour for foreign intervention.
At a UN Security Council ministerial meeting, Western governments stepped up their pleas to Russia and China to end their blockage of action over the Syrian government's assault on protest cities such as Homs in central Syria.
But Russia showed little sign that it would change its stance, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slamming "risky recipes" which he said could increase conflict in the Middle East.
The grisly murders in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, came less than two weeks after regime troops stormed its rebel Baba Amr neighbourhood, following a month-long bombardment in which activists say 700 people were killed.
Activist Hadi Abdallah told AFP the bodies of 26 children and 21 women, some with their throats slit and others bearing stab wounds, were found after the "massacre" in the Karm el-Zaytoun and Al-Adawiyeh districts of Homs.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory, said news of the killings in Homs had prompted hundreds of families to flee the city.
Syrian state television blamed the weekend killings on "armed terrorist gangs" aiming to grab the propaganda spotlight ahead of the meeting of major powers in New York.
Senior SNC official George Sabra called for "urgent Arab and international military intervention," adding that should include both the creation of a "no-fly zone" over all of Syria and "strikes" against the Syrian armed forces.
A top UN official, Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser, the president of the UN General Assembly, said Monday that more than 8,000 people have now been killed in the Syrian government's crackdown on protests since March last year.
Source: AFP Global Edition