Syria: Nearly 50 die overnight in Homs
Syria president Bashar al Assad's regime has been accused of genocide by activists as 47 people are killed in Homs since midnight.
The accusation came as Russia's foreign minister claimed to have won a promise of a "cessation" of violence on Tuesday after meeting Mr Assad in Syria.
But Sergei Lavrov's words were immediately undermined as the regime's bombardment of Homs, the epicentre of the rebellion against Mr Assad, moved into its fifth day.
At least 150 people are believed to have died in Syria in the last 48 hours. Today Reuters news agency spoke to an activist who said at least 47 people are believed to have died in Homs since midnight.
"Electricity returned briefly and we were able to contact various neighbourhoods because activists there managed to recharge their phones. We counted 47 killed since midnight," Mohammad Hassan said by satellite phone.
Activist Karam Abu Rabea told The Guardian the bombardment was the regime playing its last card.
"It is the genocide card," he said.
Mr Hassan said bombardment intensified in the early morning, concentrating on Bab Amro, al Bayada, al Khalidiya and Wadi al-Arab.
They are all Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods in the mixed city that have risen up against the 11-year rule of Mr Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite community, which has dominated the majority Sunni country for the last five decades.
"Mortar and rocket fires have subsided, but heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns are still strong...tanks are in main thoroughfares in the city and appear poised to push deep into residential areas," he added.
Mr Hassan also said a doctor tried to get through the barrage to Baba Amr but was wounded.
The official state news agency said "armed terrorist groups" attacked police roadblocks in Homs and fired mortar bombs at the city, with three falling on the Homs oil refinery, one of two in the country. It gave no details of any damage.
"Assad is seeing the civilised world turn against him and he thinks he will win if he uses more brutal force before the world could act," said Catherine al Talli, senior member of the opposition National Council.
Yesterday he Syrian interior ministry pledged to press on with the offensive against the "terrorist gangs" in Homs.
"Operations to hunt down terrorist groups will continue until security and order are re-established in all neighbourhoods of Homs and its environs and until we overcome all armed persons terrorising citizens," said a statement.
As Mr Lavrov met the president in Damascus, where he was greeted by friendly crowds waving the Syrian and Russian national flags yesterday, more shells and mortars were fired into Homs. "There are about four blasts every five minutes," said Abu Rami, an opposition activist in the city. "The humanitarian situation is dire. No one can move around."
Mr Lavrov arrived in Damascus buoyed by Russia's decision to join China in vetoing a proposed United Nations resolution that would have urged Mr Assad to step down.
The Kremlin believes this move will aid the cause of peace by maximising Russian influence in Syria. After meeting the president, Mr Lavrov said: "We confirm our readiness to fully support an early exit from the crisis on the basis of the position set out in the Arab League initiative. In particular, the Syrian president assured us that he is fully committed to the cessation of violence."
At the start of their meeting Mr Lavrov turned towards Mr Assad and said: "Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours." RIA Novosti, a state news agency, reported that Mr Assad replied that Syria "does not want to be a burden" on a friendly Russia.
However, Mr Lavrov gave no sign that Mr Assad had offered any new and specific commitments. The promise to end the bloodshed has been made before, even as the death toll has climbed towards 6,000 since the conflict began 11 months ago.
Mr Assad has previously offered a new constitution that could pave the way for national elections, which he restated yesterday. Last month, he said that a referendum on this document could be held in March. But the president's opponents do not trust him to deliver, nor do they expect him to jeopardise his position by allowing free elections.
The foreign minister was accompanied to Damascus by Mikhail Fradkov, head of the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service. His presence was probably an act of protocol, said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian intelligence, noting that Moscow has sent spy chiefs to allies in trouble as a sign of moral support in the past.
Russia is the biggest supplier of weapons to Mr Assad's armed forces, while its warships also use the Syrian port of Tartous. This facility gives the Kremlin its only naval presence in the Mediterranean and its sole military base outside the former Soviet Union.
A Downing Street spokesman said that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, would soon be in touch with Mr Lavrov. "We have seen the reports of Lavrov's visit. Our position hasn't changed. We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its actions, not its words," she said. Mr Assad's pledges "stand in stark contrast" to the "savage attempt to crush the peaceful protest in Homs", she added.
The violence has caused worldwide revulsion against the Syrian regime. But evidence has emerged showing the president was given detailed advice on how to handle an interview with ABC, the US television station, in December.
Emails released by the international hacker group Anonymous shows that a press attaché from the Syrian delegation to the United Nations told Mr Assad that the "American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are 'mistakes' done and now we are 'fixing it'."
She urged the president to mention American anti-capitalist protests on Wall Street "and the way the demonstrations have been suppressed by policemen, police dogs and beatings". In the event, Mr Assad gave the interview and then complained afterwards that the footage had been edited to misrepresent his views.