BEIRUT (AP) — A string of explosions struck a police truck transporting prisoners in a tense area of northwestern Syria on Saturday, killing at least 14 people, state media and an opposition group said. Government troops also battled defectors in the north in fighting that left 10 people dead.
The 10-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began with largely peaceful anti-government protests, but has turned increasingly militarized and chaotic in recent months as more frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces.
The official SANA news agency said the ambush of the police truck occurred on the Idlib-Ariha highway, an area near the Turkish border that has witnessed intense fighting with army defectors recently. SANA blamed the attack on "terrorists."
It said four bombs that went off in "two phases" hit the truck, and then attackers targeted an ambulance that arrived to assist the wounded. Six policemen who were accompanying the prisoners were also wounded, some of them in critical condition, it said.
The British-based opposition activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the incident Saturday and said 15 prisoners were killed.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the group, said the truck was hit by several roadside bombs, but it was not clear who was behind the attack.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but members of the so-called Free Syrian Army are known to be active in the area. The Free Syrian Army is a group of army defectors led by a Turkey-based defected colonel who sided with the protesters and have carried out attacks on regime forces.
A Syria-based activist said the area has several army encampments and is full of roadside bombs planted to target army tanks passing by, adding that the truck carrying prisoners may not have been the intended target.
The activist spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Abdul-Rahman and other activists in the country's northern Idlib province also reported heavy clashes between Syrian troops and defectors in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, along the Turkish border, and in the northern town of Maaret al-Numan.
He said nine members of the Syrian armed forces, including four officers, and a deserter were killed in the fighting in Maaret al-Numan. "Dozens" of people from both sides were wounded in the Jabal al-Zawiya fighting, and some of them were in serious condition.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said five other people were killed in Syria Saturday, including three in the central city of Homs, one in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and another in Douma, a suburb of the Syrian capital, where security forces fired on a funeral procession, wounding around 25 people.
The group also reported the discovery by residents of 30 unidentified bodies in Idlib's National Hospital Saturday. The report could not be independently confirmed.
The conflict in Syria has marked the most serious challenge to Assad, who took over from his father in 2000. The U.N. estimates some 5,400 have been killed since March, when the uprising began.
The capital has seen three suicide bombings since late December which the government blamed on terrorist extremists.
The violence comes as the head of an Arab League observers mission was to submit his report to the League's Cairo headquarters. Foreign ministers for the Arab League will meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the future of the mission, which expired Thursday.
Arab League officials said the organization is likely to extend its observer mission in Syria and increase its numbers, despite complaints from the Syrian opposition that it has failed to curb the bloodshed in the country.
The head of the observers' mission, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, released a statement Saturday through the Arab League ahead of the ministers' meeting, saying that monitors are on the ground to watch for the implementation of the League's plan and "not to stop the bloodshed."
Members of the Syrian opposition have called for the dispatch of foreign troops to Syria to create safe zones for dissidents, or even a more wide-ranging military mission similar to the air campaign which helped Libyan rebels bring down dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, was in the Egyptian capital Saturday for talks with Arab League officials ahead of Sunday's meeting.
The opposition met with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and urged him to refer the Syrian issue to the U.N. Security Council rather than continue trying to resolve it regionally.
Security officials in Lebanon meanwhile said the Syrian navy arrested three Lebanese fishermen and confiscated their boat Saturday in Lebanese waters off the northern town of Arida.
The two brothers and their nephew were taken after Syria soldiers aboard a naval vessel fired in the direction of the boat, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Relatives of the two brothers said one of them died in the shooting.
After the incident, angry residents of Arida blocked the highway linking Lebanon and Syria for hours with burning tires.
SANA said Syrian coastal guards intercepted a Lebanese boat trying to infiltrate Syrian territorial waters, after warning it to stop more than once.
It said the Lebanese crew then unloaded its cargo of sealed boxes into the sea and tried to flee, adding that people aboard other Lebanese boats opened fire, wounding two Lebanese crewmen.
Syrian officials have accused Lebanese factions of smuggling weapons to Syria.
Associate Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.