BEIRUT — Syrian forces stepped up their assault on the rebel-held town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border Saturday as talks in Geneva aimed at ending the three-year-old conflict were set to close without much progress.
Opposition activists told dpa that Syrian regime forces were using aerial and ground bombardment on Yabroud, while state television said the operation was to root out "armed terrorist groups."
Mohammed Hujeiri, a resident of the north-eastern Lebanese town of Arsaal, which is located close to the hills of Yabroud, told dpa: "The shelling is continuous and the helicopters and jets have been bombarding the area with explosive barrels since the early hours of the morning."
Thousands of Syrians have fled Yabroud since the military launched its assault Wednesday around the last rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has since mid-November pursued a slow, but successful, offensive in the strategic region, which straddles the Damascus-Homs highway and holds rebel supply lines across the Lebanese border.
UN agencies have been preparing their teams in Arsaal for an exodus from Yabroud, which is home to 40,000-50,000 people.
On Friday, the UN raised the alarm of a major military build-up in Yabroud.
"According to reports we have received from within Syria, there have been numerous aerial attacks and shelling, along with a military build-up around the town suggesting a major assault by land may be imminent," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Hujeiri, the Arsaal resident, said: "Some 20 families arrived in Arsaal after they escaped through the mountainous areas [overnight] through the heavy rain. Mainly they are women and children."
US President Barack Obama, in a late Friday meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II in California, warned that there would be no political solution in Syria expected in the short term.
"There will be some intermediate steps that we can take to apply more pressure to the Assad regime," Obama said, without elaborating on what those measures would be.
He said the underlying problem continued to be "a regime led by Bashar al-Assad that has shown very little regard for the well-being of his people ... We are going to need a political transition in that region."
But the issue of a transitional governing body remained the key sticking point during the second round of peace talks in Switzerland between opposition and regime delegates.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group, said of the assault on Yabroud: "There were attempts on the ground to infiltrate the village but so far they have failed due to the fierce confrontation they faced by the rebels."
The UN spokesman said electricity was cut off there Wednesday and field hospitals were short of medical supplies.
"We are deeply concerned that the attack on Yabroud may follow the pattern of previous attacks on cities and towns across Syria where government aerial bombardments were indiscriminate and disproportionate in violation of obligations under international law and ensuing land incursions resulted in heavy civilian casualties," he added.