Syria launched a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition in the rebellious north on Saturday, bombarding its main city with tank shells from all sides and clashing with rebel fighters struggling to hold back an invasion.
President Bashar Assad rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already staggering international efforts for talks to end the conflict. Assad told U.N. envoy Kofi Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as "terrorist groups" threaten the country.
The opposition's political leadership has also rejected dialogue, saying talk is impossible after a yearlong crackdown that the United Nations estimates has killed at least 7,500 people. That makes it likely that the conflict will continue to edge toward civil war.
Syrian forces have been building up for days around Idlib, the capital of a hilly, agricultural province along the Syria-Turkey border that has been a hotbed of protests against Assad's regime.
Saturday morning, troops blasted Idlib for hours with dozens of tank shells as the forces moved to encircle the town, an Associated Press team in Idlib reported.
Families fled their homes, carrying blankets and a few other meager belongings. Others huddled in homes.
Rebel fighters rushed through Idlib's streets, taking cover behind walls to fire on the attackers with automatic weapons, the AP team said. Trucks sped wounded fighters to clinics, and men on one street destroyed speed bumps with shovels so ambulances could drive faster.
Many low-level soldiers in the area have joined the opposition and fight along with civilians who have taken up arms as part of the loosely organized Free Syrian Army.
Many fear the offensive in Idlib could end up like the regime's campaign against a rebel-held neighborhood in the central city of Homs. Troops besieged and shelled Baba Amr for weeks before capturing it on March 1. Activists say hundreds were killed, and a U.N. official who visited the area this week said she was "horrified" by the destruction in the district, now virtually deserted.
Late Saturday, Idlib activist Fadi al-Yassin said the army had closed off the city's main exits, making harder for civilians to flee. Rebel fighters destroyed six armored trucks in an ambush and shot down one helicopter with a high-caliber machine gun, he said.
Yassin estimated that the city has as many as 1,000 fighters, but that they have mostly light arms and are short on ammunition. Most supply lines have been cut.
"The Free Army will able to keep them out for a while, but if they cannot get more weapons and if the army keeps shelling from outside, they won't be able to hold out," he said. He added, "We worry that what happened in Baba Amr will happen here."
In the evening, clashes eased, with occasional shells falling on the city, Yassin said. He said many were killed and injured but could not be taken to the central hospital because regime forces controlled it and other government buildings.
Regime forces ambushed a group of rebels heading to Idlib to join the fight, killing 16, according to two activist groups — the Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory said 17 civilians were killed in Idlib province Saturday, part of 28 killed nationwide. It said five other rebels were killed in fighting elsewhere, and that 19 regime troops were killed in Idlib and outside of Damascus. The LCC said 63 were killed nationwide, including 46 in Idlib province.
Yassin's claims and the death tolls could not be independently verified.
The visit to Damascus by Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, is the centerpiece of a high-profile international attempt to find a solution to the worsening conflict amid sharp divisions among world powers and Arab countries over how to deal with the crisis.
Annan planned a second round of talks with the Syrian president today, the U.N. spokesperson's office said in a statement.