Syrian army pounds rebel-held Homs


Syrian forces pounded the already battered city of Homs with tank and mortar fire and troops raided a rebellious northern town today, leaving 10 civilians and four soldiers dead, opposition activists said.

With the year-long bloodshed showing no signs of abating, the UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, flew to Moscow in an effort to secure strong Russian support for his efforts to bring about a ceasefire and open political dialogue.

While Western and Arab states are calling for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down first, Russia is putting the onus on the armed rebels and their foreign supporters to halt their year-long uprising, saying its long-time ally Syria was ready for talks.

"Russia sees an immediate end of violence in Syria is a priority," the Kremlin said in a statement today, a day ahead of Mr Annan's meeting with president Dmitry Medvedev."... the key task is to convince the Syrian opposition to sit down at the negotiation table with the authorities and reach a peaceful resolution of the crisis," it added.

On the ground, the idea of a negotiated peace seemed more remote than ever, with clashes reported in numerous locations.Four died in Homs, the epicentre of the anti-Assad revolt, as the central city suffered another day of what activists said was indiscriminate gunfire and shelling on residential areas.

"The shelling started like it does every morning, for no reason. They are using mortar and tank fire on many neighbourhoods of old Homs," an activist in Homs's Bab Sbaa district said.

He said most residents in the area had fled to safer districts and many were trying to escape the city altogether.Syrian troops have repeatedly targeted Homs, Syria's third largest city, and said last month they had regained the one-time rebel bastion. However, a sharp upswing in violence this past week suggests they are struggling to maintain control.

However, the Homs activist, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, suggested the opposition Free Syrian Army was also incapable of re-establishing their authority.

"The Free Syrian Army had been in Bab Sbaa when the army started shelling the area four days ago and they weren't able to block the army raids because they were getting hit by mortars at the same time that armoured vehicles were coming in," he said.

"We only have a few rebels here left, there is nothing they can do," he added.

Independent verification of the reports is impossible because the Syrian authorities have barred access to foreign journalists and human rights workers. Further to the north, security forces killed at least one person and wounded dozens more in raids on Saraqib, in Idlib province bordering Turkey, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has a network of contacts in Syria.

"There are dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles storming Saraqib now and there is heavy artillery fire," an activist called Manhal said via Skype.

"A portion of the rebels have made a strategic retreat, but there are rebel forces still inside, and about a third of residents have fled the town," he added. SOHR later said around 60 per cent had left Saraqib.

Mortars and heavy artillery fire hit also the city of Qusair, in Homs province, reportedly killing three civilians.In the southern province of Deraa, birthplace of the revolt, SOHR said a man was shot dead at a checkpoint in an area where a soldier had been gunned down.

Three other soldiers were killed in an attack in the northeastern province of Hasaka, it said.

Activists in the city of Douma, just north of the capital Damascus, reported hearing explosions from heavy fighting overnight as ambulances raced through the streets. By late morning they said the fighting had eased and reported seeing armoured vehicles and snipers deployed.