BEIRUT – Syrian government forces fired machine guns and mortars Friday in fierce clashes with rebel army defectors in a town near the Turkish border, a Syrian activist group reported, as European Union foreign ministers imposed sanctions on the wife and three other close relatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Eight government ministers will also be targeted in the latest round of sanctions aimed at stopping the violent crackdown on the Syrian opposition, several officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a decision that will be announced later Friday.
The EU has imposed 12 previous rounds of sanctions against the Syrian regime, so far with no appreciable effect on its behavior. The crackdown has only intensified.
Asma Assad, 36, the president's wife, was born in London, spent much of her life there, and has British citizenship. Britain's Home Office said that a British citizen subject to a EU travel ban could not be refused entry into the country. International condemnation of Assad's regime and high-level diplomacy have failed to ease the year-old Syria conflict, which the U.N. says has killed more than 8,000 people. But diplomatic pressure appears to be mounting.
In Geneva, the U.N.'s top human rights body sharply condemned Syria's bloody crackdown, and extended the mandate of a U.N. expert panel tasked with reporting on alleged abuses in the country.
The 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council's resolution condemned "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms perpetrated by the Syrian authorities" including summary executions, torture and sexual abuse of detainees and children, and other abuses.
UNICEF meanwhile said Friday that at least 500 Syrian children have been killed in the violence so far, while hundreds more have been injured, put in detention or abused. The UN children's agency said schools have closed and health centers have shut down or become too dangerous for families to reach.
The U.N. condemnation and the EU sanctions follow a Thursday call by one of Damascus' most steadfast allies, Russia, for Assad to pull his troops out of Syrian cities. The regime however is pressing on with several offensives throughout the country, including in northern areas close to the rebels' main supply bases in Turkey.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes in the town of Azaz in the northern province of Aleppo have left at least three soldiers and one defector dead. The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said military helicopters were seen flying over the town, eight kilometers (five miles) from the Turkish border.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said troops were shelling residential areas in Azaz with heavy machinegun fire and mortar rounds.
The Observatory also reported that 24 mortar rounds fell Friday morning in several neighborhoods in the central city of Homs -- Bab Dreib, Safsaf and Warsheh.
It said two people were killed in Safsaf. Homs has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the uprising. Government forces crushed a rebel stronghold in Baba Amr neighborhood on March 1 but appear to be facing continued resistance from other parts of the city.
Activists also reported demonstrations in different parts of Syria after midday Muslim prayers, and said government troops fired on protesters. The Observatory said security forces opened fire at a demonstration of about 1,000 people in the Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Souseh, wounding at least eight.
The LCC said security forces opened fire at protesters in the northern city of Aleppo, adding that there were casualties. The city is Syria's largest, which is also one of Assad's main centers of support.
Others protested in the southern province of Daraa, the coastal city of Latakia, the eastern oil-rich region of Deir el-Zour, and the central city of Hama, where three were reported wounded.
Amateur videos posted online by activists on Friday showed what they said were Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks driving through streets in Hama.
The video was taken on Tuesday, according to the activist filming the tanks.
The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified. The LCC said a total of at least 18 people were killed throughout the country. The Observatory said five were killed.
In Jordan's capital Amman, blind Syrian cleric Ahmad al-Sayasneh preached to 1,000 Syrian anti-Assad protesters Friday to "remain steadfast until our tyrant leadership is ousted."
It was his first public appearance since fleeing Syria two months ago.
A Sunni Muslim, al-Sayasneh preached at a mosque in the rebellious town of Daraa where he delivered fiery sermons calling for civil disobedience. Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict continued, with the United Nations saying the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, would travel to Russia and China for more talks aimed at a peaceful resolution.
Russia and China have twice in the past vetoed Security Council resolutions that criticized the regime, but the West, the U.N. and Arab countries are making a new push to get the two powers not to stand in the way of their initiatives.
On Thursday, senior Russian lawmaker Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin-connected chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Assad must take the first step toward settling his country's yearlong conflict by pulling his forces out of cities and allowing humanitarian assistance.
Margelov's comments indicated Moscow's increasing impatience with Assad and its eagerness to raise pressure on an old ally. Russia has been one of Assad's strongest supporters since the crisis began.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby for his part plans to urge China to help in issuing a U.N. resolution that includes internationally agreed-upon proposals to end Syria's crisis.
The request was included in a memo that he will raise during next week's Arab summit in Iraq, according to a copy obtained by
The Associated Press in Cairo. On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement calling for a cease-fire to allow for dialogue between all sides on a political solution.
The statement endorsed a six-point plan by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which includes a cease-fire by Syrian forces, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate injured people and provide humanitarian aid and inclusive talks about a political solution.
Assad's government played down the statement, saying Damascus is under no threats or ultimatums.