BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces launched a counteroffensive in the south, capturing a town and killing at least 45 people including women and children, opposition activists said yesterday.
The attack on the town of Sanamein followed a rebel advance in the area in recent weeks. The opposition fighters captured army bases and a major town in the strategic province of Daraa along the border with Jordan.
"They slaughtered any person they found," an activist in the nearby town of Busra al-Harir who goes by the fake name of Hamza al-Hariri told The Associated Press via Skype. He would not give his real name for fear of government reprisals.
"This is the ugliest massacre since the one in Houla," he added, referring to a region in the central province of Homs where more than 100 civilians were killed by government forces in May last year.
Rebels advancing in the south in recent weeks have been aiming to secure a corridor from the Jordanian border to Damascus, about 60 miles away, in preparation for an eventual assault on the capital.
Regional officials and military experts note a sharp increase in weapons shipments to opposition fighters by Arab governments, in coordination with the United States, in the hopes of readying a push into Damascus, the ultimate prize in the civil war that has killed 70,000 in two years.
State-run Syrian TV said the armed forces "wiped out terrorist groups" in Sanamein and the nearby town of Ghabagheb. It said troops were targeting rebel hideouts in different parts of Daraa. They included the villages and towns of Tafas, Jassim, Dael and Tseel and the report said they had inflicted casualties in those areas.
Daraa, the provincial capital, was the birthplace of the uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported clashes yesterday in the city of Daraa and said there were casualties among regime troops.
The Observatory said at least 45 people, including five children and seven women, were killed in Sanamein by "shooting, shelling and field execution," a reference to people reported to have been shot at close range.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, said more than 60 people were "brutally" killed in the town. After troops stormed Sanamein, the group said, they used some civilians as human shields and took others as hostages and looted some homes.
Also yesterday, Syria's Foreign Ministry complained to the UN Security Council about al-Qaida's activities in Syria, saying Damascus has been fighting the group for two years. The Syrian government denies there is an uprising and says it is fighting terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy.
The letter came a day after the leader of the most formidable rebel group in Syria pledged allegiance to al-Qaida but distanced himself from a claim that his Islamic extremist faction had merged with the terror network's Iraqi branch.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, accused Syria of war crimes by indiscriminate and sometimes deliberate airstrikes against civilians, killing 4,300 people since the summer.