Syrian opposition fighters have killed 23 government soldiers, activists have said, as efforts to find a viable political alternative to Bashar al-Assad's rule faltered when an opposition group said it would boycott Arab-backed talks to unite its splintered ranks.
The latest bloodshed centred on the town of Rastan, where opposition sources said Assad's forces killed nine other people, further unravelling a month-old UN ceasefire pact that is being overseen by international monitors.
Rastan, 180km north of the capital, Damascus, has slipped in and out of government control during a 14-month-old uprising in which peaceful protests have given way to sectarian-tinged violence in answer to Assad's bid to crush unrest.
Opposition activists said the soldiers were killed during clashes at dawn that followed heavy army shelling of Rastan.
"Shells and rockets have been hitting the town since 3am at a rate of one a minute. Rastan has been destroyed," a member of the opposition Free Syrian Army in Rastan, who declined to be named, told the Reuters news agency by satellite phone.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters destroyed three armoured personnel carriers and seized two others, capturing about 15 soldiers.
Syria's Sunni Muslim majority is at the forefront of the revolt against Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Assad's government says it is fighting a terrorist attempt to divide Syria.
The Arab League confirmed that a meeting aimed at uniting the Syrian opposition would taking place in Cairo this week, despite Syria's leading opposition group announcing on Monday it will boycott the meeting.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) said the group will not take part in the Arab League-sponsored talks because it only received eight individual invitations.
In the statement, the SNC claimed that the meeting "turned a blind eye to the position of the SNC as the lawful representative of the Syrian People," adding that "the invitation lacked the minimum requirement for success".
Radwan Ziadeh, an SNC member, said: "We had previous meetings with the secratary general of the Arab League in Cairo and Beijing, where we agreed upon three things.
"That the next meeting will be co-hosted by the SNC as being the main umbrella group of the Syrian opposition. That we would have a say about which people will be invited and also that we would have a role in deciding on the agenda of the talks.
"We don't have any idea about the agenda or who will be invited," Ziadeh said speaking from Rome, where the group is holding a separate meeting aimed at choosing a new leader.
Political jockeying within the SNC has prevented it from gaining full international recognition as the sole representative of the anti-Assad movement.
Executive members told Reuters they may choose a new president or restructure the council in a bid to garner broader support.
Fighting in Tripoli
Meanwhile, fighting in neighbouring Lebanon left at least eight men dead and more than 20 people wounded when Alawite supporters of Assad clashed with Sunni Muslims in the city of Tripoli, medical sources said on Monday.
Fierce clashes overnight shook the northern port city and sporadic fighting continued on Monday.
Tension between the Alawite and Sunni communities in Tripoli has been fuelled by the unrest in neighbouring Syria.
A small Alawite minority is concentrated in Tripoli, a conservative Sunni city where many residents have been enraged by the Syrian government's crackdown.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|