US massacre fear as Assad sends in killer-helicopters
UN-ARAB League envoy Kofi Annan said he was "gravely concerned" by events in Syria as regime helicopters unleashed their fire on rebellious towns in a day of widespread violence.
With his ceasefire abandoned by both sides, Mr Annan told of his alarm at reports of assaults on towns in the Homs and al-Haffa areas, as Bashar al-Assad's government stepped up efforts to wrest back control.
"There are indications that a large number of civilians are trapped in these towns," said Mr Annan, urging the regime to allow UN observers to access the besieged areas.
In Homs, mortars rained down and videos posted online showed buildings erupting in orange fireballs.
Army shelling was also reported in all corners of the country, from the central province of Hama, Daraa to the south and Aleppo in the north, as well as in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, with at least 61 people reported dead, according to the Local Coordination Committees. The violence came as the UN monitoring mission for the first time confirmed the army's use of helicopters against rebel targets -- an accusation long made by rebels, but one that hitherto had not been independently verified.
"UN observers reported heavy fighting in Rastan and Talbiseh, north of the city (of Homs), with mortar shelling as well as firing from helicopters, machine guns and smaller arms," said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the mission.
Separately, the US State department warned that the Syrian government appears to be planning a massacre in the opposition stronghold of Haffeh, and it warned that Syria's army will be held to account for killings.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington shared the alarm of international mediator Mr Annan, who described reports of mortar bombs, helicopters and tanks being used in Haffeh, near the coast.
"We are calling this out now in the hope that we can stop what could be a potential massacre," Ms Nuland said.
Ms Nuland said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces were using "horrific tactics" including firing on civilians from airborne helicopters and deploying plainclothes "shabbiha" militia, which the opposition has accused of slaughtering civilians in earlier attacks in the villages of Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir.
"This constitutes a very serious escalation," Ms Nuland said.
"And we remind Syrian commanders of one of the lessons from Bosnia: The international community can and does learn what units were responsible for crimes against humanity and you will be held responsible for your actions."
Despite the warning of imminent violence, Ms Nuland made clear the US had little new to suggest to end Syria's 15-month long crisis, which has seen the UN Security Council deadlocked amid continued support for Mr Assad by Russia and China, which both hold vetoes on the council. (© Independent News Service)