Syria forces hit rebel bastions despite peace moves

President Bashar al-Assad's regime pressed its deadly campaign to crush dissent on Monday, reportedly pounding northern rebel strongholds as it brushed off a "Friends of Syria" meeting as a failure.

An explosion ripped through central Damascus on Monday morning, injuring several people and damaging shops near a police station, Syrian television and witnesses said.

Violence elsewhere killed at least three people, as international peace-broker Kofi Annan prepared to brief the United Nations Security Council after Western and Arab nations sought a deadline for Damascus to implement his peace plan.

The call was issued in Istanbul at a meeting Sunday of the so-called Friends of Syria group seeking to end the bloodshed.

Nations at the conference — including Arab League members, the US, France and Germany — steered clear of backing opposition appeals for arms to fight the regime clampdown.

The opposition Syrian National Council, which is funded by some Gulf Arab states, said it would pay the salaries of rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army seeking to topple the Assad regime.

In a final declaration, the conference urged UN-Arab League envoy Annan "to determine a timeline for next steps, including a return to the UN Security Council, if the killing continues."

"The regime will be judged by its deeds rather than its promises. The window of opportunity for the regime to implement its commitments to joint special envoy Annan is not open-ended," it added.

Assad had on Tuesday said he accepted Annan's six-point plan.

The plan calls for an end to violence, a humanitarian ceasefire and access to all restive areas, as well as an inclusive Syrian-led political process, the right to demonstrate, and the release of people detained arbitrarily.

Official Syrian media belittled the conference, however, with one newspaper saying the gathering of what it called the "Enemies of Syria" was a failure for those seeking to overthrow Assad.

"Despite all the hype, the conference of the 'Enemies of Syria' produced only meager results… showing it was unable to shake Syrians' rejection of foreign intervention," said Al-Baath, the mouthpiece of Assad's ruling party by the same name.

Under the headline "Another Failure," it said "the participants will eventually recognize that the resistance of the Syrians, the [government's pledged] reforms and the double veto by Russia and China … have allowed Syria to overcome the crisis and win the battle."

Russia, a Soviet era ally of the Assad regime, and China have used their veto powers against two UN Security Council resolutions condemning the crackdown.

Moscow itself said on Monday that the meeting contradicted the objective of reaching a peaceful settlement that could end the bloodshed.

"The promises and intentions to deliver direct military and logistical support to the armed … opposition that were voiced in Istanbul unquestionably contradict the goals of a peaceful settlement to the civil conflict in Syria," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Istanbul gathering, which followed one in Tunis in late February, came amid continuing fighting on the ground as Damascus said it had no immediate plans to pull back its forces.

On Monday, security forces pressed their crackdown on dissent, with at least three civilians killed and as many wounded as they pounded rebel bastions in Syria's restive north, a monitoring group said.

"At least one civilian was killed and eight injured by gunfire and shells during a military offensive launched this morning in Hass village" in Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Troops set ablaze the houses of eight people who had fled and arrested dozens of people in the village, it added.

Two other Idlib villages, Deir Subol and Farkia, were also targeted by Syrian troops in an operation in which a 16-year-old was killed and three people injured, the Observatory said.

Also Monday, a civilian was killed in a blast in the northern city of Aleppo while in central Homs city, one of the main targets of the regime's year-long crackdown, heavy machinegun fire was heard in Hamidiyeh district, it said.

In the capital, an explosion went off near Hotel Kinda and a police station in the busy central neighborhood of Marja, leaving four people with slight injuries, Al-Ikhbariya television and witnesses said.

Bombings have hit Syria's major cities in recent months, provoking mounting concern that Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

According to UN estimates, more than 9,000 people have died in the regime's crackdown on the uprising that began in March last year, inspired by Arab Spring protests that toppled long-time dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.

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