Fears of fresh massacre as 30,000 Assad troops surround rebel city
A vast pro-government force surrounded Homs last night as the opposition warned that the withdrawal of UN observers from Syria's streets had paved the way for a massacre in the city.
The Syrian opposition called for the immediate deployment of armed international peacekeepers as residents said that rebel-held districts of Homs had been subjected to the most sustained bombardment of the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
"The army is systematically gutting neighbourhood by neighbourhood with artillery," said Mohammed al-Homsi, an activist from the city. "Since the observers stopped working yesterday we have seen a clear escalation."
The shelling appeared to be a prelude to a major assault on Homs, the most defiant of Syria's cities and the scene of repeated clashes that have claimed thousands of lives.
Activists claimed that as many as 30,000 soldiers and members of the feared pro-regime militia, the Shabiha, had surrounded the city and were waiting to move in once the artillery barrage had softened resistance.
"Around 85pc of Homs is now under shelling or bombardment with mortar rounds and heavy machine guns," Abu Imad, an opposition campaigner, said. "Dozens of wounded are without treatment because all the hospitals have fallen under the control of Shabiha. The dead are the lucky ones."
Homs suffered one of the bloodiest battles of the uprising when government forces drove rebels out of the Baba Amr district shortly before the deployment in April of 300 unarmed UN observers under a ceasefire plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the international envoy to Syria.
The presence of the monitors tempered the violence at first, but after a growing number of incidents in which they have come under fire, the UN announced it was suspending the observer mission, dealing the most severe blow yet to international efforts to prevent civil war.
With 84 deaths reported over the weekend, the opposition Syrian National Council criticised the suspension of the mission and demanded that the UN send a peacekeeping force. (© Daily Telegraph, London)