60 civilians killed as Syrian forces pound Homs
22 February, 2012
BEIRUT/GENEVA/DAMASCUS: Syrian government forces killed more than 60 people on Tuesday in assaults on villages and an artillery barrage in the restive city of Homs, activists said, and the Red Cross called for daily ceasefires to let in urgently needed aid.
Activists said at least 30 people died in the bombardment of the Baba Amro, neighbourhood of Homs city, and at least 33 were killed when forces trying to crush opposition to President Bashar al-Assad stormed villages in northern Idlib province.
In Damascus, security forces opened fire on demonstrators overnight, wounding at least four, activists said. Violence has hit the capital over the past week, undermining Assad's assertion that the 11-month-old uprising against his rule is limited to the provinces and the work of saboteurs.
Activist accounts of the violence could not be confirmed. The government bars most foreign journalists from Syria.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Jakob Kellenberger said, "It should last at least two hours every day, so that ICRC staff and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have enough time to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded and the sick."
Western and Arab powers that are openly seeking Assad's downfall are preparing for the inaugural meeting of a "Friends of Syria" contact group in Tunisia on Friday.
Russia and China back Assad's own programme for reforms, which includes plans for a referendum on Sunday on a new constitution that would lead to elections in 90 days. Assad said this should satisfy demands for more democracy; his opponents said the proposals were a sham.
Russia said it would not attend the "Friends of Syria" meeting because the Syrian government would not be represented. The Russian Foreign Ministry suggested the UN Security Council should send a special humanitarian envoy to Syria.
Russia and China have faced Western and Arab criticism for blocking UN action against Syria. A former Syrian Defence Ministry auditor who defected in January told Reuters Moscow's arms sales to Damascus - nearly $1 billion last year - had increased since the start of the uprising.
Lebanon, which has tried to distance itself from the turmoil across its border, will also stay away from the Tunis meeting, its foreign minister said.
Activists said government forces launched the artillery attack on Homs after rebel fighters holding the opposition Baba Amro district blocked troops from entering. "Several shells are falling each minute," activist Nader al-Husseini told Reuters from the district, adding that at least two children were among the victims.
Another activist in the city said, "We have now at least 30 killed. One family is among them."
A third said, "Others are still buried. Today the shelling is very fierce."
The British-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces had stormed villages in Idlib province in the north of the country.
"The army stormed the village of Abdita and chased people in Iblin and Balshoon. They killed 33 people. All are civilians," the group said.
Activists in Homs said government forces backed by armour have been closing in on Baba Amro, a mainly Sunni neighbourhood, since the offensive on the city began on February 3.
Much of the opposition to Assad comes from the Sunni majority, while much of his support comes from minorities, including his Alawite sect, raising worries that violence could take on a sectarian slant and draw in neighbouring countries.
Tanks are deployed in the Inshaat district next to Baba Amro, opposition sources said. The Observatory said a convoy of more than 50 armoured vehicles was seen heading from Damascus towards Homs. A city of one million people on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, Homs has been at the heart of the uprising against Assad's 11-year rule. Residents say they are running short of medicine and food, and are massed together in crowded homes to seek shelter.