BEIRUT – The United States accused the Syrian government of using “new horrific tactics” Monday, as U.N. observers reported Syrian helicopters were firing on rebellious areas and concerns mounted that civilians were trapped in besieged cities.
Violence in Syria has spiked in recent weeks, as both sides ignore an internationally brokered cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect April 12 but never took hold.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concern about reports the regime “may be organizing another massacre” in Latakia province, where U.N. monitors have been impeded.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Nuland warned, “People will be held accountable.”
Activists reported more than 50 people killed across Syria on Monday, with clashes between military forces and rebel fighters in Homs, Idlib and Latakia provinces. The death toll and the online videos were impossible to independently verify.
According to videos posted online, fireballs exploded in the air as waves of shells pounded residential buildings in the central city of Homs on Monday. The sounds of shells whooshed through the sky amid sporadic machine gun fire.
Syrian soldiers chased down and killed rebels who set fire to one of their tanks in a farming area close to the Orontes river in the Idlib province, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of sources on the ground.
The attack killed seven soldiers and a civilian, he said. There was no confirmation from state media.
Another three men and two women were killed while trying to flee, Abdul-Rahman said.
In the nearby village of Laj, another 11 slain men lay in a room, their names scrawled on papers tucked into their clothes, according to amateur video.
A car bomb exploded in the city of Deir al-Zour, killing 10 people, Abdul-Rahman said.
“What we are seeing right now are fierce clashes as the Syrian army tries to take back positions held by the rebels,” Abdul-Rahman said. “There are many deaths in the rebel ranks,” he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an immediate end to the “dangerous intensification” of violence across Syria and called on all countries with influence to urge the parties “to pull back from the brink.”
Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said in New York on Monday that U.N. observers in Syria “have reported an increased level of armed confrontation between government and opposition forces.”
He said “the government’s intensive military operations, including the shelling of Homs and reportedly other population centers, as well as firing from helicopters on Talbiseh and Rastan, are resulting in heavy civilian casualties and human rights violations.”
Nesirky said U.N. observers are also reporting “planned and coordinated attacks on government forces and civilian infrastructure in multiple locations.”
International envoy Kofi Annan said Monday he was “gravely concerned” about the escalation of fighting in Syria, citing the shelling of opposition areas in central Homs province and reports of mortar, helicopter and tank attacks in the town of Haffa and its surrounding villages in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast.
Nuland said, “We are calling this out now in the hope that we can stop what could be a potential massacre.”
Nuland declined to say if Washington or anyone else in the international community might take proactive measures.