Syrian forces pounded the city of Rastan with shells on Sunday after routing rebel fighters from nearby Homs, monitors said, as the Red Cross awaited the go-ahead to evacuate wounded from the battered region.
The assault on mainly rebel-held Rastan came as China urged all parties in Syria to "unconditionally" end the violence and a monitoring group said 44 people had been killed in various parts on the country on Saturday.
"Since dawn, the positions of deserters in the north of Rastan have been subject to intensive shelling," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
The rebel fighters on February 5 declared Rastan to be "liberated" from President Bashar al-Assad's control, but since Homs was overrun by regime forces on Thursday, the deserters have been bracing for an onslaught on Rastan and on Qusayr, also near Homs.
"They are the two cities where there are concentrations of rebels in the centre of the country and we have been expecting they would be the next targets of the regime's attacks on deserters," Abdel Rahman said.
Rastan is a strategic city as, like Homs, it falls on the main road linking Damascus with northern Syria.
The Observatory had on Friday reported 12 civilians, including five children, killed when a rocket slammed into a crowd of protesters in Rastan.
It also said parts of the city were subjected to shelling and heavy gunfire by Assad's forces. AFP was not immediately able to verify the Observatory's reports due to restrictions on foreign journalists in Syria.
The rebels fled the Baba Amr section of Homs on Thursday in the face of a withering ground assault by regime forces following a month-long shelling blitz which the US-based Human Rights Watch said had killed some 700 people.
HRW said shells sometimes fell in Baba Amr at a rate of 100 an hour and that satellite images showed 640 buildings visibly damaged, but stressed that the real picture could be worse.