Syrian claims to have begun withdrawing troops from restive cities in accordance with a UN-backed ceasefire plan have been questioned after it mounted one of its biggest offensives in months against rebel strongholds.
More than 30 people were reported killed after elite units of the Syrian army widened an operation to seize back towns and cities that have partially fallen under opposition control ahead of a truce meant to come into force next week.
Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, announced that a complete cessation of hostilities by both sides is due next Thursday, 48 hours after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdraws all his troops from population centres.
But, with more than 150 deaths reported in the last three days, Mr Annan conceded that reports of mounting casualties were "alarming".
Residents of the town of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, said they had come under one of the most sustained government operations of the year-long uprising against Mr Assad.
Tanks shelled the town for more than eight hours, while loyalist snipers took up positions on more than 20 rooftops, they said.
"I was woken by 15 large explosions next to the Grand Mosque," an activist, identifying himself as Abu Khaled, said.
"The army is everywhere, on every street. I can see a tank in front of me now. It is a bad situation; we have wounded but it is too dangerous to move them.
"Our secret clinics are running out of blood bags and medicines," he added.
Video footage recorded the death of Abu Sobhi Al Durra, an 80-year-old man shot in one of the town's squares, who lay slumped against a wall on the street.
Mr Durra was one of thousands of the uprising's civilian casualties, a disproportionate number of them old, female or very young, according to activists.
With opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army present in the area, regime troops forced prisoners to march in front of the advancing tanks as "human shields", activists said. Their claims could not be independently verified.
Mr Annan said Syria had told him it had begun a partial withdrawal from Idlib, Zabadani and Deraa -- three of the most fiercely contested cities of the uprising.
Residents of Zabadani confirmed that about 15 tanks had been withdrawn but that the city had still come under fire as it had done every day in recent months. At least 14 people were killed in Idlib province during clashes between army forces and the rebels, witnesses said.
Turkish officials said some 2,350 Syrians have fled across the border from Idlib in the last 24 hours.
Western politicians said they had little confidence Mr Assad would abide by the peace deal. Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, accused the Syrian leader of "deceiving us", adding: "Can we be optimistic? I am not." (©Daily Telegraph, London)