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Activist groups said Syrian forces were stepping up their assaults on opposition areas around the country Thursday, often sparking clashes with local rebels.

Regime forces shelled the Arbaeen neighborhood in the central city of Hama and clashed with rebels while trying to enter the northern town of Sarmeen.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people, half of them women and children, were killed when troops fired on a bus taking them from the town. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 13 died in the attack on a bus taking the group to a refugee camp in across the border in Turkey. It also reported deaths in government attacks in the central cities of Homs and Hama, putting the nationwide toll at 59.

The Syrian government has barred most media from working in the country, so activist claims could not be independently verified.

The Observatory said troops shot dead three civilians in the town of al-Qusair near the border with Lebanon.

Human Rights Watch accused the government of serious abuses against the town’s civilian population in recent weeks, saying its forces had shelled residential neighborhoods, posted snipers of rooftops and attacked residents as they fled.

The New York-based HRW said Thursday that the town lacks food, water and medical services and suffers a near blackout of communications.

Reflecting the growing militarization of the conflict, rebels killed at least 12 soldiers in attacks on checkpoints and convoys Thursday, the Observatory said.

Syria’s rebels are outgunned by MR. Assad’s large, professional army but have opted for insurgent attacks on military targets.

The Syrian government cites the rise in such attacks to boost its argument that the uprising is being carried out by terrorist groups acting out a foreign conspiracy.

Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Putrajaya, Malaysia, contributed to this report.