Syria pounds protest hubs
Syrian forces rained rockets and shells on protest hubs on Monday and killed at least 66 civilians, activists said, as Washington closed its Damascus embassy and Britain recalled its ambassador. The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said the regime was surrounding Homs with tanks ahead of “a major offensive” and warned of a “genocide” in the central Syrian city.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 civilians were killed in Homs alone, and warned that the death toll was likely to rise because many of the dozens of wounded were in critical condition. State media reported the deaths of three soldiers and said a “terrorist group” blew up an oil pipeline in Homs. The army also launched an assault on the Zabadani area near Damascus with heavy tank shelling, killing at least three people, said the Britain-based Observatory.
It also reported civilian deaths in Rastan, Hula and Qusair, all towns in Homs province, as well at Sarghaya, near Damascus, in the northern city of Aleppo and in Idlib, northwest Syria. A resident of Homs told AFP the latest assault began shortly after 0400 GMT, with an unprecedented barrages of rockets, mortar rounds and artillery shells.
“What is happening is horrible, it’s beyond belief,” said activist Omar Shaker, reached by telephone as loud detonations were heard in the background. “There is nowhere to take shelter, nowhere to hide,” he said. “We are running short of medical supplies and we are only able to provide basic treatment to the injured.” One video posted on YouTube apparently showed a field hospital hit by shelling in the Baba Amro district and wounded patients lying on stretchers on the floor amid pools of blood and shattered glass.
Its authenticity could not immediately be verified. Footage shot by a BBC undercover team in Homs showed buildings ablaze in rebel neighbourhoods as regime forces pounded them with heavy weapons. Plumes of white smoke billowed into the sky. Damascus blamed the bloodshed in Homs on “terrorist gangs” using mortars.
The violence comes as Western powers seek new ways to punish Damascus amid growing outrage over Saturday’s veto by Russia and China of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for a near 11-month crackdown on dissent. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto a “travesty.” White House spokesman Jay Carney warned Syria’s allies that backing President Bashar al-Assad was a “losing bet” because his hold on power was “very limited at best.”
The State Department said it had closed the American embassy in Syria and withdrawn remaining staff after Damascus refused to address security concerns. Senior State Department officials told CNN that two embassy employees left by air last week and 15 others, including Ambassador Robert Ford, left overland through Jordan on Monday morning. The Polish government is to provide emergency consular services to any American citizens remaining in Syria.
US President Barack Obama said it was important to resolve the conflict diplomatically. “It is important to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention and I think that’s possible,” he said in an NBC television interview. Britain recalled its ambassador to Syria “for consultations,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament. “We will use our remaining channels to the Syrian regime to make clear our abhorrence at the violence that is utterly unacceptable to the civilised world,” Hague said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he would call Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the international response to the crisis. Neither France nor Germany, he said, would accept the “blocking” of action on Syria. Russia and China both defended their vetoes, with Moscow condemning as “hysterical” the West’s angry reaction.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov are due in Damascus on Tuesday, as news reports said the mission could try to persuade Assad to quit. China called on both sides to the conflict to halt the violence that has claimed the lives of at least 6,000 people since March, according to opposition activists.
Saturday’s double veto handed Assad’s regime a “licence to kill,” the opposition SNC charged, urging Syrians around the world “to surround Syrian embassies and stage sit-ins outside them.” The SNC said the “genocide” in Homs showed the regime was “increasing the pace of its crimes and repression.” Saudi Arabia called for “critical measures” on Syria and warned of an impending “humanitarian disaster” after the failure of the UN resolution.
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Riyadh is the leading member, is to meet on Saturday on Syria, on the eve of an Arab League ministerial meeting at the organisation’s Cairo headquarters. SAPA
200+ civilians die in Syria
Syrian forces killed at least 217 civilians, including women and children, in a “massacre” in the central city of Homs, a rights group said Saturday, ahead of a UN vote on the repression. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 138 of the fatalities were caused by mortar fire in the Al-Khalidiya district of Homs, which has become a flashpoint of the 10-month revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Another 79 people were killed in other parts of town. Following violence elsewhere, including Damascus, during the day, Friday’s overall death toll was around 250 and could still rise, the Observatory said. “It’s a real massacre,” the observatory’s director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, calling for the “immediate intervention” of the Arab League to end the killing.
The Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya television channels showed images of dozens of bodies on the ground. The violence broke out after thousands of people across Syria defied the government crackdown to mark the 30th anniversary of a notorious 1982 massacre in the central city of Hama that killed thousands. News of the latest deaths came as a diplomat in New York said members of the UN Security Council would meet Saturday morning for a vote on a resolution condemning the violent repression in Syria.
The text is the same as a draft resolution sent to the council’s 15 members on Thursday. It highlights the UN body’s support for an Arab League plan for a democratic transition while leaving out explicit references to calls for Assad to step down, the diplomat said Friday. The Syrian rights group, called on the people “to take to the streets in the towns and villages and to rise up against the regime which is committing a real massacre right now in Homs.”
The Homs violence followed an already bloody day in which, the Syrian Observatory said, at least 35 other people were reported killed across Syria, among them 16 civilians. The Britain-based group said 14 soldiers were killed in clashes with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and that five army deserters also lost their lives. In addition, one person died of wounds sustained on Thursday, and the bodies of three other people were either found or returned to their families.
Amid growing concern that Syria is sliding into all-out civil war, an officer with the FSA claimed the regular army “is in a pitiful state and getting close to collapsing.” The UN Security Council vote is expected on the same day that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to hold face-to-face talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, amid a fresh American push for passage of the resolution.
“It is the same text that’s going to a vote,” a UN diplomat said on Friday, referring to the draft resolution sent to the council’s 15 members the previous day. The resolution faces an uncertain fate, as Moscow had maintained its opposition to a tougher draft resolution authored by Western powers and the Arab League. Russia also said Friday it could not support the new draft in its current form, which states the council fully supports an Arab League plan to facilitate a democratic transition, but leaves out explicit references to calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The Security Council has yet to adopt a resolution on Syria despite 10 months of violence that has left more than 6,000 people dead, rights groups estimate. An earlier draft was blocked in October by China and Russia. Clinton held what her spokesman described as “constructive” talks by telephone with Lavrov over the draft, and the pair were due to meet in Munich, likely ahead of the UN vote.
“You can be sure that Syria and the discussions at the UN will be one of the issues there, among many,” a senior State Department official said. The new draft backs a January 22 Arab League request that Assad transfer power to a deputy and a government of national unity within two months but does not call on him to step down, according to a copy obtained by AFP.
Instead, it calls for a “Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system… including through commencing a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition under the League of Arab States’ auspices, in accordance with the timetable set out by the League of Arab States.”
The draft also “condemns all violence from whatever source and… requires that all parties in Syria, including armed groups (opposition), immediately cease all violence or reprisal.” The latest attempt at consensus emerged after hours of talks stalled in the Security Council, with Moscow leading the opposition to a tougher draft resolution authored by Western powers and the Arab League. Diplomats said the new draft took into account concerns by Moscow, a staunch Damascus ally. SAPA