Beirut: Angry crowds blocked UN observers from reaching an embattled rebel-held town in Syria today, hurling stones and metal rods at the monitors' vehicles. Their vehicles came under fire as they drove away from Haffa, but the source of the gunfire was not clear, the UN said.

None of the observers was injured. The situation in Haffa has raised alarm over the past eight days, and there are concerns civilians are stuck in the area while the regime and rebel fighters battle for control.

Washington said yesterday that regime forces may be preparing a massacre in rebel-held Haffa -- a village about 20 miles from Assad's hometown of Kardaha.

It's not clear why the crowd wanted to prevent the observers from entering, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier that resident of a nearby village was trying to block the observers.

Citing a network of sources on the ground, the Observatory said the residents were mostly regime loyalists.

Calls to the area did not go through today. The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts from either side.

Also today, Syrian forces pelted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour with mortars as anti-government protesters were dispersing before dawn today, killing at least 10 people, activists said.

The offensives were part of an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has brought more international pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime faces over its brutal tactics against the opposition.

 The UN accused the government of using children as human shields in a new report.

 It said children have been victims of detention, torture and sexual violence.

Amateur video of the mortar attack on Deir el-Zour showed some of the dead in a street as survivors screamed in panic and tried to remove their bodies. Other videos showed some of the wounded receiving treatment at a hospital.

 The Local Coordination Committees activist group and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people died in the shelling.



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