More Syrians have been killed in the three weeks since peace talks began than at any other time in the civil war, activists said on Wednesday, as troops pounded rebel towns on the Lebanese border and negotiations faltered in Geneva.
More than 230 people have been killed every day in Syria since Jan. 22, when international mediators brought President Bashar al-Assad's government and its opponents together, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. That is more than in any other three weeks since the war began in 2011.
It is unclear how far the bloodshed is a consequence of the talks, as both sides seek to improve their bargaining positions by gaining territory. On Wednesday, Assad's army and fighters from Lebanese ally Hezbollah pounded the strategic border town of Yabroud where rebels prepared to resist a ground offensive.
Third of all dead were civilians
The United Nations says more than 130,000 Syrians have been killed in nearly three years of fighting. Totalling at least 4,959, the three-week death toll compiled by the Observatory included 515 women and children. The group estimated about a third of all the dead were civilians.
"This is the highest average we have had," said Rami Abdelrahman of the Observatory as the group urged a suspension of negotiations at Geneva if there was no immediate ceasefire.
There was little sign of an early breakthrough on the third day of a second round of talks in the Swiss city.
The opposition, which has little sway over rebels fighting on the ground, called for a transitional governing body to oversee a U.N.-monitored ceasefire and expel foreign fighters in a paper that avoided any mention of Assad - whose departure the government delegation has refused to discuss.
The confidential paper, seen by Reuters, did not draw an immediate official response from the government, although the foreign minister said driving out foreign fighters could be worth discussing in time - rare common ground.
Foreign, anti-Western Islamists are a major force among the otherwise Western- and Arab-backed rebels. The opposition wants rid of Hezbollah and Iranian auxiliaries fighting for Assad.
Homs evacuation could be extended
Wednesday was the last day of a three-day extension of a humanitarian ceasefire allowing the delivery of aid and evacuation of civilians from the city of Homs although it could be extended again, the city's governor Talal al-Barazi said.
Syrian army soldiers used mobile phones to try to take pictures of the evacuees, convinced they were among the rebels fighting there, in scenes illustrating the fear and suspicion unleashed by the conflict that has torn the country apart.
Another plainclothes member of the security forces was overheard saying his role was to greet each of the evacuees to see if their accents betrayed foreign nationality.