BEIRUT: Deadly clashes erupted between government troops and rebels in suburbs of the Syrian capital and villages in the country's south Friday, sparking fighting that killed at least 23 people, including nine soldiers, activists said.
President Bashar Assad is trying to crush an 11-month-old uprising with a sweeping crackdown that has so far claimed thousands of lives, but neither the government nor the protesters are backing down and clashes between the military and an increasingly bold and armed opposition has meant much of the country is now engulfed in violence.
The fighting spread to new areas Friday, with army dissidents reportedly seizing a security post in the rural town of Andan in the northwestern Aleppo province, marking the first time rebels have struck so close to the powerful merchant city of Aleppo. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
With the violence in Syria growing increasingly chaotic, diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis have gained pace. In Washington, a senior State Department official said Friday the U.S. is "cautiously optimistic" of strong support for a new U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria and calling for a political transition in the country.
The official said a draft resolution proposed late Thursday by Morocco would likely clear a Security Council vote later Friday or over the weekend, as it appeared to meet Russian concerns.
"From our perspective, this resolution fully supports the Syrian people and the Arab League," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the diplomacy.
The Syrian conflict, which began with largely peaceful protests, has grown more militarized in recent months as army defectors have joined the uprising against Assad, prompting a fierce response from regime forces on towns where the rebels are based.
Earlier this week, Syrian troops backed by tanks retook a belt of suburbs on Damascus' eastern outskirts in fierce fighting with rebel soldiers. On Friday, similar clashes in the northwestern suburb of Daraya and in the mountains overlooking Damascus left seven civilians dead, activists said.
In the towns of Jassem, Kfarshams and Nawa in the southern province of Daraa, clashes killed at least nine soldiers and wounded several others Friday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In the northern province of Idlib, a roadside bomb killed two boys, state media and activists said. Two others were killed by security forces, according to the Observatory. Activists also said at least three people were gunned down by Assad supporters in the city of Aleppo during an anti-government protest.
Nationwide, at least 23 people were killed, according to the Local Coordination Committees activist group.
The United Nations estimated in January at least 5,400 people have been killed in the crackdown. But the U.N. has been unable to update its tally since because the chaos in the country has made it difficult to cross-check the latest figures.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch said in a new report that it has documented at least 12 cases of children detained under "inhumane" conditions and tortured, as well as children shot in their homes or on the street.
"Children have not been spared the horror of Syria's crackdown," said Lois Whitman, children's rights director for the New York-based group. "Syrian security forces have killed, arrested, and tortured children in their homes, their schools, or on the streets."
The report quoted a 16-year-old boy from the town of Tal Kalakh near the Lebanese border as saying he was detained for eight months during which he was held in at leats seven different detention centers.
The boy, whom HRW referred to as Alaa, said security forces asked him how many protests he participated in, and then cuffed his left hand to the ceiling and left him hanging there for about seven hours, standing on his toes.
"They beat me for about two hours with cables and shocked me with cattle prods. Then they threw water on the ground and poured water on me from above," he said.
In another case, the parents of a 13-year-old boy from the coastal city of Latakia told HRW that in December security officers arrested him and held him for nine days. According to his parents, he was accused of burning photos of Assad, vandalizing security forces' cars and inciting other children to protest.
Security officers burned him with cigarettes on his neck and hands, the parents said, and threw boiling water on his body.
An adult former detainee told the rights group that some children were raped while in detention.
Also Friday, activists reported protests across Syria, including Aleppo, which, along with the capital Damascus, has so far in the uprising remained largely quiet, although residents say protests there are on the rise.
Many of the protesters out Friday in Syria were commemorating the 1982 Hama massacre. The assault was ordered by Assad's father and predecessor Hafez Assad, following an armed rebellion by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group in the city.
Amnesty International has estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed in the 1982 siege of Hama, though conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has never made an official estimate.
The latest protests and clashes came a day after diplomats failed to reach agreement on a U.N. resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed in Syria, leaving discussions in limbo pending consultations with their home governments.
Envoys said that yet another text is being drawn up for them to send to their capitals for consideration.
The State Department official said the new U.N. draft resolution repeats all the conditions the Arab League had set and fully supports its call for a Syrian-led political transition. It also sets a deadline of 21 days to make progress on the resolution; if there is no progress, the issue returns to the Security Council.
While the draft doesn't contain any new sanctions, it gives the council an opportunity to revisit the situation, the official said. The official said the resolution should draw a strong show of support from the council's members.