BEIRUT — Government forces clashed with army defectors and stormed rebellious districts in central Syria on Wednesday, firing mortars and deploying snipers in violence that killed at least seven people, including a mother and her 5-year-old child, activists said.
Pressure on Syria to end 10 months of bloodshed has so far produced few results. Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have pulled out of the Arab League's observers mission, asking the U.N. Security Council to intervene. Decisive action from the U.N. appeared unlikely, however, as Russia, a strong Syrian ally, has opposed moves like sanctions.
While Syria has approved extension of the observers' presence for another month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem signaled that the crackdown on protests will continue, insisting that Syria will solve its own problems.
A Syrian military assault near Hama began Tuesday night, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists and opposition members. Shells slammed into several districts around Hama's Bab Qebli area, the LCC said.
"It was impossible to rescue the wounded due to the ongoing arbitrary shelling," the group said in a statement.
Two people were killed by sniper fire, according to the LCC and another opposition group, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In the town of Qusair near the central city of Homs, a woman and her 5-year-old child were killed when a shell struck their home during clashes between government troops and gunmen believed to be army defectors, both groups said.
Three other people were killed during raids in a Damascus suburbs.
Al-Moallem's televised news conference underlined signs that the Arab strategy to solve the crisis was collapsing. After announcing their pullout from the observers mission, Gulf Arab countries urged the U.N. Security Council to take all "necessary measures" to force the country to implement a League peace plan announced Sunday to create a national unity government in two months.
Damascus has rejected the plan as a violation of national sovereignty.
Al-Moallem brushed off the threat of referring the issue to the Security Council — a move that could lead to tougher sanctions — rather than trying to resolve it regionally. The prospect of U.N. involvement has raised fears in Syria that an international intervention could be next.
The U.S., the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey all have introduced sanctions against Damascus in response to Assad's crackdown, but Russia threatens to veto such measures.
Syria informed the Arab League Wednesday that it had agreed to extend the observer mission one month, until Feb. 24, said Adnan al-Khudeir, head of Cairo operations room that handles reports by the monitors.
He also said the League has put together a new group of observers to replace the 55 GCC monitors, who were leaving Wednesday. They consist of 15 Mauritanians, 10 Palestinians and six Egyptians, and they will head to Syria within a week, he said.
The uprising, which began with largely peaceful protests, has grown increasingly militarized in recent months, as frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces.
Defectors clashed with government soldiers Wednesday in northern Syria's Idlib province, activists said.
Soldiers siding with a group of anti-regime army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army are also known to be active in Hama, and some in the city said they were the target of the current government assault.
Residents near Hama reported hearing loud explosions throughout the night and on Wednesday and said phone lines to the targeted areas were down.
"They are trying to storm the Bab Qebli, Hamidiyeh and Malaab districts because defectors are there," said Ahmad al-Jimejmi, an activist who spoke by telephone from a town several miles away.
A Jordanian man of Palestinian origin accused pro-regime forces of kidnapping and killing his 27-year old son in Hama.
Hafez Abu Osbeh said his son, Ahmed, 27, was kidnapped last Friday, and his body was left outside his mother's residence three days later with gunshot wounds to his head. He said a description of the kidnappers' vehicle pointed to government loyalists.