42 die as Syrian army targets city rebels in major offensive
Syria's army rained shells and mortar bombs on to the city of Homs yesterday, in the biggest offensive against President Bashar al-Assad's enemies since the conflict began almost a year ago.
The intense bombardment claimed at least 42 lives, with a field hospital being struck by shells. The army targeted areas of Homs where rebels from the Free Syrian Army have a strong presence, notably the district of Baba Amr.
Hundreds of shells and mortar bombs were reported to be falling every hour, while the insurgents were unable to retaliate with anything more effective than small arms fire.
"We can't count all the bodies from the streets and the collapsed buildings. Anyone who tries to go on the street might be killed -- there are snipers," said Abu Abdu al-Homsi, the spokesman in Homs for the Syrian Revolutionary Council, an opposition group.
"An old woman; her son was shot and killed in the street. She went to get his body and was shot dead, too."
The army surrounded the city with tanks, according to a statement from the Syrian National Council, an alliance of opposition groups.
"We are living in a tragedy," said Mr Homsi. "Homs is surrounded. Nothing is going in or out. It's besieged. People can't even run away or flee, and are dying in their homes."
Mr Assad's forces launched a near simultaneous assault on the town of Zabadani near Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group.
Troops backed by armoured vehicles carried out the attack, supported by "heavy tank shelling". Across the country a total of 66 people were killed yesterday, according to the group.
Experts believe that two explanations may lie behind the renewed assault. Mr Assad has been emboldened by the Russian and Chinese veto of a UN Security Council resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League peace plan and called on him to step down and transfer power to his deputy.
The Syrian regime also probably believes that its Western and Arab opponents will respond to their defeat at the UN by supplying the rebels. This would make it imperative for Mr Assad to strike his enemies before they grow stronger.
His regime blamed the bloodshed in Homs on "terrorist gangs" who were allegedly pounding areas of the city with mortar bombs.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, is expected to arrive in Damascus today. He is expected to place pressure on Mr Assad to negotiate with domestic opponents and settle the conflict.
Yesterday, US President Barack Obama defended his administration's actions during the 11-month uprising against Mr Assad's regime.
"We have been relentless in sending a message that it is time for Assad to go," Mr Obama said. "This is not going to be a matter of if, it's going to be a matter of when." (© Daily Telegraph, London)