A damaged car is seen in Bab Amro, in the city of Homs
Syrian troops attacked rebel strongholds in Deraa on Thursday where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted nearly a year ago, and the U.N. chief said crimes against humanity may have been committed in Syria.
The assault on Deraa followed a push against rebels in the cities of Hama and Homs, which has faced nearly two weeks of bombardment from Assad's forces, in an apparent drive to crush the 11-month-old uprising against his rule, reports Reuters.
Assad has intensified a crackdown on protesters and insurgents, while also setting a February 26 referendum on a draft constitution that would end the Baath Party's monopoly on power, to be followed by a multi-party parliamentary election.
Syria's opposition and Western powers dismissed the promised reforms and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking before a non-binding vote at the United Nations on a draft resolution aimed at increasing pressure on Assad, said potential crimes against humanity were being carried out in Syria.
"We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old jailed and abused. We see almost certain crimes against humanity," he told reporters in Austria.
China, which along with Russia blocked a draft resolution at the U.N. Security Council backing an Arab call for Assad to step aside, said it was sending a senior envoy to Syria.
"(China) does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change," Vice Foreign Minister, Zhai Jun said.
Zhai, who will travel to Syria on Friday and Saturday, said China believed that "sanctions or the threat of sanctions are not conducive to the appropriate resolution of this issue."
An authoritative Chinese newspaper, apparently responding to criticism of the Chinese and Russian vetoes, said on Thursday that meddling in Syria by foreign powers risked stirring up a hornets' nest of bloodshed and instability in the region.
The commentary in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, carried an author's pen name that is often used to state Beijing's foreign policy stance.
World powers must handle Syria and tensions elsewhere in the Middle East with a sense of realism, the paper said, adding that the spread of conflict would be a "catastrophe" in a crucial phase of global economic recovery.
"The Middle East is the world's most important fuel depot. If gripped by chaos, oil prices would skyrocket, shocking the stock market, financial systems and economies," the paper said.
After bombarding Homs for nearly two weeks, the military has begun a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad's late father Hafez al-Assad. Activists said at least 14 people were killed in bombardment of the nearby town of Kfar Nubouzeh on Thursday.
The state news agency said security forces "chased and fought an armed terrorist group in the Hamidiya neighbourhood of Hama that has been terrifying citizens" and arrested some of its members, who had assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
In Deraa, a city on the Jordanian border, the sound of explosions and machinegun fire echoed through districts under attack by government troops, residents said.
There was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities, who tightly restrict media access to the country.