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Beirut - Syrian forces backed by tanks attacked the central town of Qalaat al-Madiq and other areas on Wednesday, sparking clashes which cost at least 21 lives, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The monitoring group said four civilians were killed in shelling, while five rebel fighters and four soldiers died in fierce clashes in Qalaat al-Madiq and surrounding villages.
The army also attempted to storm other rebel positions in various regions across the country, including in northwest Idlib, in central Homs and in the southern province of Daraa, the Britain-based group said.
It said troops entered the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, in Hama province, just after dawn following a 17-day barrage of shelling and heavy gunfire to root out rebels. The army, however, was not in full control of the town.
“Heavy clashes between regime forces and armed rebels are preventing the army from advancing,” the Observatory said. “Intense gunfire and explosions can be heard in nearby villages.”
Qalaat al-Madiq is home to a historic castle that was shelled during the fighting, as seen in videos posted on YouTube.
The army's offensive is part of a drive by President Bashar al-Assad's regime to claim control of key rebel strongholds as it tries to crush an unprecedented revolt.
Fierce clashes were also reported on Wednesday in the province of Daraa, cradle of the year-long revolt that has left more than 9,000 people dead according to the United Nations.
“Intense clashes erupted at dawn between regime forces and armed rebels in the town of Bosra al-Harir after an officer warned local residents to surrender the rebels or face an assault,” the Observatory said.
Fighting was also taking place in the nearby town of Dael.
In Homs province, three soldiers were killed and 16 others wounded in fighting with rebels in the town of Rastan, it added.
“Heavy clashes took place at the entrance of the town which the army tried to storm at dawn,” the Observatory said.
Activists said regime forces also fired mortars on Bustan al-Diwan, a neighbourhood in the city of Homs, which has come to symbolise the uprising against the regime.
“Some of the mortars hit a historic church,” said Karam Abu Rabii, a local activist also reached by Skype.
Five people were killed by sniper fire or clashes in other neighbourhoods of the city, the Observatory said.
In Idlib province, forces stormed Khan Sibil, a village near the town of Saraqeb which was overrun earlier this week, the Observatory said.
It added that, as in Saraqeb, houses were being torched in the village.
A YouTube video posted by activists showed heavy destruction in Saraqeb with buildings flattened and burned out shops. Most of the city's residents fled the town in the face of the army assault that began last Saturday, activists said.
“Saraqeb has suffered heavy destruction,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory, told AFP. “Forty-five people have been killed there since Saturday, among them 18 rebels.”
There was no independent verification of the reports as Syrian authorities restrict the movements of foreign media. - Sapa-AFP