Syrian regime smashes Homs in unrelenting offensive
Syria's army rained shells and mortar bombs onto the city of Homs, launching 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. Beginning at 6am, local time, 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, spokesman for the Syrian Revolutionary Council, an opposition group, in Homs. "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 had surrounded the city with tanks, according to a statement from the Syrian National Council, an alliance of opposition groups, and the bombardment signalled the onset of "a major offensive", with fears that this may develop into an assault by troops.
"We are living in a tragedy," added 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. They are also shelling from the Citadel and the blockade line and from the tanks surrounding all the neighbourhoods."
Mohammed Saleh, who lives near Homs, tried to reach the Khalidiya area of the city yesterday. "They cut phone lines, landline and mobile, from 8.30am to 1pm, when the landlines but not the mobile lines came back. I have now gone further away, but can still hear the bombing even though I am now 25 km (15m) away."
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 Observatory.
Homs, the third-biggest urban centre in Syria found near the country's western frontier with Lebanon, has become a stronghold for FSA guerrillas and one of their crucial supply routes. The city of about 1 million people has a history of sectarian tension, divided between a Sunni Arab majority, which forms the mainstay of the rebel movement, and Christian and Alawite minorities, many of whom back Mr Assad's regime.
Experts believe that two explanations may lie behind this renewed assault on the president's opponents. Mr Assad has been emboldened by the Russian and Chinese veto of a United Nations 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 defeat of this measure has all but eliminated any chance of the Security Council authorising outside military action against his regime, lifting the possibility of Mr Assad facing the kind of campaign that toppled Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
In addition, the Syrian regime probably believes that its Western and Arab opponents will respond to their defeat at the UN by supplying the FSA rebels. Some countries might be willing to provide weapons, others could offer logistical support. 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. They were also responsible for blowing up an oil pipeline running through the area yesterday, according to the official news agency in Damascus. "The security forces are pursuing the terrorists and clashing with them," reported state television.
But a video posted on Youtube by opposition activists showed the field hospital in Baba Amr immediately after the bombardment. Floors were smeared with blood, windows shattered and the wounded lay on stretchers. Other video footage showed a five-year old girl, apparently wounded by the shelling, her face and head swathed in white bandages.
Fresh from vetoing the proposed resolution at the UN, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was expected to arrive in Damascus on Tuesday. He is expected to place pressure on Mr Assad to negotiate with domestic opponents and settle the conflict.
Meanwhile, the rebels announced a reorganisation, forming a "Higher Revolutionary Council" to command the FSA guerrillas, led by General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, a former Syrian army officer who has fled to Turkey.