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Syrian forces pound Homs as protests spread in Damascus
Syrian forces yesterday blitzed the flashpoint city of Homs and opened fire to disperse daring protesters in the capital, monitors said, as the Red Cross sought ways to deliver aid to afflicted areas. The escalation comes as Russia, a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, said it will boycott an international conference in Tunis this week aimed at seeking political change in Syria, while China refused to commit.
It also comes ahead of the weekend referendum on a new constitution that could end nearly five decades of rule by Assad’s Baath party, in a bid by Damascus to fend off pressure for regime change. Despite a plea by activists on Monday to allow women and children to flee Homs’s besieged neighbourhood Baba Amr, troop reinforcements were sent to the outskirts of the restive city, which residents say has been assaulted by regime forces for 18 straight days. Activists fear they are preparing to storm its defiant neighbourhoods.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a military convoy of 56 vehicles, including tanks and personnel carriers, were seen on Tuesday travelling on the highway from Damascus, near the town of Qarah, 70 kilometres (38 miles) south of Homs. The Britain-based monitoring group said 16 people, including three children, died in “intensive shelling” that targeted Baba Amr yesterday, with the Khaldiyeh and Karm al-Zaytoun districts also blasted. Another seven civilians, including a child, were reportedly killed by gunfire in other parts of the country.
Homs-based activist Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, who had earlier voiced fears of an imminent ground attack against Baba Amr area, told AFP that “large reinforcements were heading to Homs.” “We counted at least 150 shells crashing in Baba Amr within two hours this morning. We gave up counting afterwards,” he said. Omar Shaker, another activist in Baba Amr, told AFP that the neighbourhood had “no electricity, nor fuel,” and that “snipers have hit water tanks,” rendering the situation “bad beyond imagination.”
AFP was not able to verify the reported death toll nor the reports of shelling as foreign reporters are given only limited access within the country. Meanwhile, businessman Mahmud Ramadan, whose brother Ahmed is a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, was shot dead on Monday in Aleppo, according to the Observatory and SANA state news agency. Although SANA said Ramadan was killed by a “terrorist group”, the Observatory said that he was pro-regime, an accusation that his brother dismissed as “defamation,” in a telephone interview with AFP.
In the capital, the Observatory reported that Syrian security forces opened fire overnight to disperse a demonstration, as daring protests spread in the stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Security forces opened fire at demonstrators who took to the streets in the capital’s Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighbourhood, it said.
Protesters during the night also blocked the roads leading to Baramkeh Square in the centre of the capital, according to Mohammed Shami, a spokesman for activists in Damascus province. He said demonstrators used “burning materials” to shut the roads, triggering a security alert that saw “heavily armed forces” deployed in the area within minutes. Secular Syrian groups have called for more demonstrations in the capital, outside parliament, against the draft constitution being put to a referendum on Sunday. The Red Cross said earlier that it was in talks with the Syrian authorities and rebels to halt the violence so that it can deliver aid.
“The International Committee of the Red Cross is exploring several possibilities for delivering urgently needed humanitarian aid,” said ICRC spokesman Bijan Farnoudi on Monday.
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