Dozens die as Syrian tanks shell city of Homs


SYRIAN TROOPS in tanks reportedly fired barrages of mortars and rockets for a fifth day on opposition strongholds in the central city of Homs yesterday, killing up to 67 people. The toll could not be verified.

The assault, said to be the most intensive in recent hostilities, took place the morning after President Bashar al-Assad promised Russia he would end the bloodshed.

Anti-regime activists said the army fired mortar rounds and Russian-manufactured Grad rockets into several rebel-held neighbourhoods, and tried to cross the barricades to reach Bab Amr, the core of the rebellion in the city.

Communications with some areas was cut. Local activist Hadi al-Abdallah said 19 people belonging to three families were murdered in the Sabeel area, and there were unconfirmed reports that pro-regime militiamen, called shabiha, were on a door-to-door killing spree.

Rumours abound. A claim that 18 premature babies had died when electricity was cut to a hospital was promptly denied by the government and discounted by independent analysts. Little hard news was coming out of the city.

State media said insurgents had attacked police roadblocks in Homs and fired mortars at the city and the oil refinery, “setting two fuel tankers on fire”. Syrian television reported that several civilians and security personnel were killed by a car bomb in a central district of Homs.

Towards evening, the rocket and mortar fire is said to have abated, but residents of four neighbourhoods held by anti-regime fighters expect a ground assault. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 53 people had been killed, but other activists put the figure at 67.

Amnesty International reported it had received the names of 246 people killed in Homs since Friday, including 17 children. Although some were armed rebels, the majority were reportedly noncombatants.

The rebel Syrian Free Army, composed of army deserters, claimed that government forces were deploying for an all-out of- fensive against small towns and villages between Homs and the Lebanese border “in the early hours of the morning, if not before”.

Observatory head Rami Abdul-Rahman said the military was trying to “exhaust rebels in preparation for storming [rebel] neighbourhoods”.

Analysts in Damascus agreed, arguing that the army, which has retaken control in Damascus’s satellite towns and is said to be clashing with rebels in the resort of Zabadani west of the capital, is determined to strengthen the regime’s position on the ground before it tries to move forward with promised reforms, including a referendum on the new constitution and parliamentary elections, provisionally scheduled for June. “We cannot have voting unless there is security,” stated a source close to the regime.

Doctors without Borders reported that “wounded patients and doctors are pursued and risk torture and arrest at the hands of the security services”. Consequently, “most of the wounded do not go to public hospitals”, and those who do attempt to hide their identities by giving false names.

Injured people are treated in “clandestine facilities” and “makeshift operating theatres”. The organisation insisted that the authorities “re-establish the neutrality of healthcare facilities”.

A healthcare professional said “both sides” had to “respect the neutrality” of medical professionals and provide access to wounded civilians, protesters, militiamen and soldiers.

UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay pressed for interna- tional action to end the violence (see panel). The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a coalition of 40 opposition groups, announced that 2,814 people from Homs had been killed since the revolt began last March. The UN’s overall estimate of deaths during this period is 5,400.

President Bashar al-Assad has designated his deputy Farouk al-Sharaa to intitiate talks with the opposition. Mr Sharaa was in charge of last spring’s efforts to begin a fruitful dialogue.

The US hopes to meet soon with international partners to consider how to halt the violence in Syria and provide humanitarian aid, the White House said yesterday. “In the coming days we will continue our very active discussions ... to crystallise the international community’s next steps in that effort to halt the slaughter of the Syrian people,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.


THE UNITED Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said yesterday she was appalled by the violence against civilians in Homs and called for urgent international action.

Navi Pillay also implicitly criticised Russia and China for vetoing an Arab and western move in the UN Security Council to get Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to quit.

“I am appalled by the Syrian government’s wilful assault on the city of Homs, and its use of artillery and other heavy weaponry in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the city,” Ms Pillay said in a statement. Ms Pillay, a former South African high court judge, said it was extremely urgent “for the international community to cut through the politics and take effective action to protect the civilian population”.

She said the “virtual carte blanche” granted to Syria by the veto of the UN resolution “betrays the spirit and the word” of a 2005 global accord on collective action to protect civilians when their government was failing to do so.

Her statement came as both Russia and China continued to defend their stance. In Moscow, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said it was “not really the international community’s business” to try, as he put it, to determine the outcome of a national dialogue between government and opposition in Syria.

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin condemned what he called a growing “cult of violence” internationally. Referring to events in Libya and Syria, he said: “We of course condemn all violence regardless of its source but one cannot act like an elephant in a china shop. Help them, advise them, limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons, but not interfere under any circumstances.”

China, meanwhile, hit back at its critics, notably British foreign secretary William Hague. It said his criticism of Beijing’s veto was extremely irresponsible.

Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin also accused Mr Hague of harbouring “ulterior motives”, in China’s strongest comments since it rejected the resolution. Mr Hague said Moscow and Beijing had turned their backs on the Arab world.

“Such accusations are extremely irresponsible, with ulterior motives, and the Chinese find them totally unacceptable,” Mr Liu said.

– (Reuters)