Syrian troops pound Homs as fighting rages in other cities; Annan eyes Russian support


Syrian forces pounded the battered city of Homs with tank and mortar fire and troops pummeled several other rebel strongholds on Saturday, opposition activists said as international condemnation and high-level diplomacy have so far failed to stop the year-old Syria crisis.

As many as 54 people have been killed for the fire of Syrian forces across the country, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists. Heavy clashes were reported between the government forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops in Duma in Damascus suburbs, activists said.

Ali Hassan, spokesperson for the Sham News Network, told Al Arabiya that the Syrian regime is targeting Duma as it shelters a huge number of army defectors, as well as its strategic location.

Al Arabiya, meanwhile, received footage of the Syrian government tanks patrolling the streets of Hama for the purpose of frightening residents.

With the bloodshed showing no signs of abating, the U.N.-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, flew to Moscow, seeking Russian backing for his efforts to secure a ceasefire.

Western and Arab states want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stand down but Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, has put the onus on the armed rebels and their foreign backers to make the first move.

Meanwhile, the international committee for the Red Crescent reached Doma city near Damascus on Sunday. Syrians staged anti-Assad “Damascus here we come” demonstrations in many towns and cities across the country on Friday, but violent security forces crackdown followed in the same day and days after.

Annan holds talks in Moscow

In a statement ahead of Sunday’s meeting between Annan and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin said it would be hard to enforce a halt to the violence “until external armed and political support of the opposition is terminated,” according to Reuters.

An adviser to Medvedev said Saturday the country seeks a political solution, The Associated Press reported.

Sergei Prikhodko said Moscow’s top priority for Syria is to halt to the violence and persuade the opposition “to sit at the negotiating table with government representatives and reach a peaceful resolution of the crisis.”

More than a year after the start of the uprising against Assad, the prospect of a negotiated peace seemed more remote than ever, with clashes reported in numerous locations.

Scores of people were killed by explosions and sniper fire in Homs, the epicenter of the anti-Assad revolt, said activists who accused Syrian forces of shelling residential areas in the center of the city indiscriminately.

“The shelling started like it does every morning, for no reason. They are using mortar and tank fire on many neighborhoods of old Homs,” an activist in Homs’ Bab Sbaa district told Reuters via Skype.

He said most residents in the area had fled to safer districts and many were trying to escape the city altogether.

The Syrian government says rebels have killed about 3,000 members of the security forces and blames the violence on “terrorist” gangs. The official Sana news agency said the bodies of 18 “army martyrs,” killed in various clashes, were buried on Saturday.

Syrian troops have repeatedly targeted Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and said last month they had regained control of Baba Amr, a large neighborhood held by rebels for several months. However, a surge in violence in other neighborhoods this week suggested the army was struggling to keep control.

The Homs activist, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, said the opposition FSA had also not been able to reestablish its hold on parts of the city.

“The Free Syrian Army had been in Bab Sbaa when the army started shelling the area four days ago and they weren't able to block the army raids because they were getting hit by mortars at the same time that armored vehicles were coming in,” he said.

“We only have a few rebels here left. There is nothing they can do,” he added.

It was impossible to verify the reports independently. Syrian authorities have prevented foreign journalists and human rights workers from entering affected areas.

Further to the north, security forces killed and wounded dozens of people in raids on Saraqib, which lies in Idlib province bordering Turkey, activists said.

“There are dozens of tanks and armored vehicles storming Saraqib now and there is heavy artillery fire,” an activist called Manhal said via Skype.

Mortars and heavy artillery fire also hit the city of Qusair, in Homs province, killing three civilians.

In the southern province of Deraa, birthplace of the revolt, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a man was shot dead at a checkpoint in an area where a soldier had been gunned down. Three other soldiers were killed in an attack in the northeastern province of Hasaka, it said.

Divisions in anti-Assad front

Deep divisions within opposition ranks have weakened the anti-Assad front. In a bid to tackle the problem at a military level, a senior army defector said on Saturday that all rebel groups would work under the leadership of the FSA.

“In these critical times that our beloved Syria is passing through, it is necessary that all noble people of this nation work to unite all efforts at toppling this corrupt regime,” Brigadier General Mustafa Sheikh said in a video message.

Sheikh said he would head the group’s military council while FSA leader Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who was sitting alongside him, would take charge of the fighting forces.

Speaking from Turkey, Asaad told AFP in Beirut that the new military council “is a step towards guaranteeing the unity of the troops and armed forces (of the opposition) on Syrian territory.”

Annan is leading international efforts to avoid any escalation and has drawn up a six-point plan, including demands for a ceasefire, the immediate withdrawal of heavy armor from residential areas and access for humanitarian assistance.

The EU and other bodies have also imposed sanctions to put pressure on Assad and his allies. But attempts to halt the conflict have been stymied by divisions between world powers. Russia and China have vetoed two U.N. resolutions highly critical of Damascus.

Moscow and Beijing did support a Security Council resolution earlier this week endorsing Annan’s mission. The former U.N. chief is due to fly to China after his Russia talks.

Moscow has accused the West of being too one-sided in the conflict, arguing that outside support for rebels is fuelling the fighting in Syria, which hosts a Russian naval base.

In these critical times that our beloved Syria is passing through, it is necessary that all noble people of this nation work to unite all efforts at toppling this corrupt regime

Brigadier General Mustafa Sheikh