Syrian death toll mounts as Russia and China reject foreign intervention

Injured French journalist Edith Bouvier pleads for help as she lies on a sofa in Homs in this still image taken from a video posted on a social media website. (Reuters)

As many as 101 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian security forces on Thursday, activists at the Local Coordination Committees told Al Arabiya, as Syrian forces intensified their violent crackdown on rebel strongholds in the battered cities of Hama and Homs.

Russia and China, meanwhile, rejected pressure to change their position on Syria after vetoing a United Nations resolution condemning the Damascus regime for its bloody crackdown on the opposition.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi to discuss the two powers’ future strategy on the crisis, less than a month after the U.N. Security Council vote.

“The sides reaffirmed the joint position of Russia and China,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, according to AFP.

Moscow and Beijing seek “a speedy end to any violence in Syria and the launch of inclusive dialogue between the authorities and the opposition without preconditions for a settlement, and that excluded foreign intervention in Syrian affairs.”

The Russian ministry did not spell out what future actions the two countries had agreed to take amid their continued resistance to any foreign military presence in the country.

Refusing foreign intervention

Western powers have thus far refused to seriously mull military intervention but are considering humanitarian mission to help civilians that may require the protection of a small foreign force.

The decision by the two veto-wielding Security Council members to block the Western-Arab resolution sparked widespread condemnation and was followed by a renewed attack by government forces on the opposition stronghold of Homs.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday called the leaders of Saudi Arabia as well as Iraq and Iran to shore up regional support for Moscow's stance.

But Saudi Arabia’s official SPA news agency said King Abdullah told Medvedev that his calls for Syrian dialogue were “futile” and that Russia should have “coordinated with the Arabs... before using the veto.”

The governor of Syria’s flashpoint city of Homs has been told to try to evacuate Western journalists killed or wounded in the city’s besieged Baba Amro district, the information minister said on Thursday.

“For humanitarian reasons, and although they entered the country without a permit to go to an area controlled by terrorists, the governor of Homs has been told to exert every effort possible to evacuate the journalists,” Adnan Mahmoud told AFP.

Veteran U.S. journalist Marie Colvin, working for Britain’s The Sunday Times, and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik, with the IP3 Press agency, were killed on Wednesday when a rocket hit a makeshift media center in the rebel district.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared on Thursday that the deaths of a French photographer and a U.S. reporter in the besieged Syrian city of Homs amounted to “murder”.

Edith Bouvier, a reporter for French daily Le Figaro and Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy were wounded.

The British Foreign Office said on Thursday Conroy was “on his way out” of the besieged city.

“We understand that Paul Conroy is on his way out of Homs to a neighboring country where he will be receiving medical treatment,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman told AFP.

Conroy, 47, was injured in the rocket attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik on Wednesday.

Appealing for help

Syria’s information ministry said it could not give details on whether or not Conroy had already managed to leave Homs.

In a video posted online by anti-regime activists, Bouvier said she needs urgent medical attention and asked to be evacuated quickly. She made the appeal in the footage, sitting alongside French photojournalist William Daniels, who said he was not wounded but also keen to be extracted urgently.

A Syrian citizen journalist Rami al-Sayyed, was also killed late on Tuesday in a separate incident in Homs.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC television that “all the necessary work is being done” to repatriate the body of Colvin, who wrote for the Sunday Times for 25 years.

Britain summoned Syria’s ambassador to London on Wednesday to demand that Syrian authorities facilitate “immediate arrangements for the repatriation of the journalists' bodies,” as well as medical treatment for Conroy.

Rupert Murdoch, whose U.S.-based News Corporation owns The Sunday Times, said in a staff email on Wednesday that the company was working to help Conroy leave Homs, which was being bombarded by regime troops on Thursday for a 20th day.

“We are doing all we can in the face of shelling and sniper fire to get him to safety and to recover Marie’s body,” he wrote.

The Sunday Times said it had no updates on Thursday.

Shameless brutality

Western powers condemned Syria over the killing of the journalists, with Washington denouncing the regime’s “shameless brutality” and Paris holding Syrian authorities responsible.

But Damascus on Thursday said it was not responsible for the deaths of the journalists who had “sneaked” into the country, according to a foreign ministry statement.

French television reporter Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs last month when a shell exploded amid a group of journalists covering protests in the city on a visit sanctioned and organized by the Syrian authorities.

Syrian tanks pushed into a rebel stronghold in the battered city of Homs on Thursday and U.N. investigators accused Assad’s government of crimes against humanity, according to Reuters.

Rockets, shells and mortar rounds rained on the Baba Amro district, where armed insurgents are holed up with terrified civilians, activists said. The Sunni Muslim quarters of Inshaat and Khalidiya also came under fire.

Homs-based activist Abu Imad said tanks had entered the Jobar area in the south of Baba Amro.

“Explosions are shaking the whole of Homs. God have mercy,” Abdallah al-Hadi said from the city, where more than 90 people, were reported killed on Wednesday.

The plight of Homs and other embattled towns will dominate “Friends of Syria” talks in Tunis on Friday involving the United States, European and Arab countries, Turkey and other nations demanding that Assad halt the bloodshed and relinquish power.

Russia and China said they will not attend.

Friends of Syria

U.S. officials said the Friends of Syria group would challenge Assad to provide humanitarian access within days to civilians embroiled in the intensifying conflict.

The army is blocking medical supplies to parts of Homs and electricity is cut off 15 hours a day, activists say. Hospitals, schools, shops and government offices are closed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to get the government and rebel forces to agree daily two-hour ceasefires. Access for aid workers will also be the focus of a planned visit to Syria by U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

U.N. investigators in their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, they called for perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanders and officials alleged to be responsible.

The commission, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, found that Free Syrian Army rebels had also committed abuses including killings and abductions, “although not comparable in scale.”

More than 7,600 people have been killed in the 11 months since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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