New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused government forces of going on a killing spree in opposition areas at the same time that officials in Damascus were sitting down with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to negotiate the terms of the truce in March and early April. 

"Everywhere we went, we saw burnt and destroyed houses, shops and cars, and heard from people whose relatives were killed. It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the ceasefire to cause harm," said senior HRW researcher Anna Neistat on Wednesday.

The truce brokered by Annan has led to a small reduction in the daily carnage, especially in cities were monitors are deployed permanently.

In assaults on the northern province of Idlib, troops killed at least 95 civilians and destroyed hundreds of homes, HRW said in a report that accused Damascus of war crimes.

Damascus has not commented on the report. It accuses foreign-backed armed groups of being behind the violence.

Anita McNaught, reporting from near the Syrian border in Mardin, Turkey, said the report corroborated what Al Jazeera had witnessed in Syria.

"Indeed, their conclusions, that civilians had been deliberately targeted; that there had been people who had been taken out and executed; that there was both - my words, not theirs - a form of collective punishment going on and quite discriminate elimination of homes...that belonged to people who were known to be in opposition to the government - yes, we saw all of that," said McNaught.

Syria is also gearing up for multi-party elections on May 7, part of a political reform package agreed to by Assad as a
gesture towards those who want an end to his family's four-decade grip on power.

Western states do not set much faith in either the ceasefire or reform process. Paris has called for U.N. sanctions, but the West can do little given the diplomatic cover Syria enjoys at the Security Council from China and Russia.

Troops targeted

Meanwhile, the AFP news agency reports that 22 government troops, including two colonels, were killed on Wednesday.

At least 15 were killed in an ambush by opposition fighters at dawn in the northern province of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The UK-based watchdog said the ambush took place near the village of Al-Rai, scene of clashes between opposition fighters and government forces. It said two opposition fighters were also killed.

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In Harasta, near Damascus, an additional six members of the security forces were killed during clashes with armed opposition, the observatory said.

Amd in Deir Al-Zor, twelve members of the security forces were killed on Tuesday, the organisation said.

The alleged killings took place in spite of a putative ceasefire that came into effect on April 12, which the UN has accused both sides of violating.

The plan calls for a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, media access to all areas affected by the fighting, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate and the release of detainees.

According to the UN, more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since an anti-government uprising began in March last year.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies