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Syrian forces shell Homs; observers’ chief ‘disturbed’ by Deir Ezzor killings

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Syrian forces shelled al-Houla and al-Khaldiya neighborhoods in Homs, Al Arabiya reported on Wednesday citing the Syrian Media Center.

As many as 13 people have been killed on Wednesday by the violent crackdown of Syrian forces against civilians, espceially in Duma and Homs, activists at the Local Coordination Committees told Al Arabiya.

The Syrian Revolution Council later reported a new figure for the death toll in Syria on Wednesday, and placed it at 25 people killed across the country.

Heavy clashes were reported in al-Sayyeda Zeinab neighborhood in Damascus suburb between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the government troops. Clashes intensified and extended gradually, reaching al-Hajar al-Aswad, activists told Al Arabiya.

In Duma, in Damascus suburbs, heavy shootings were reported near the residential areas, activists at the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) said. Government forces shot at protests overnight in Maadamiyat al-Sham, Kafer Sousa and Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Street in central Damascus.

Scores of people were killed by the fire of Syrian forces on Tuesday, mostly in Homs and Deir Ezzor, where 13 people were executed, with their hands tied behind their backs, in a new massacre, Al Arabiya reported citing LCC activists. Most of Deir Ezzor victims were employees at the electricity company, who went on strike in protest of the massacres committed by the Syrian regime, activists said.

The U.N. observer mission chief in Syria, Major General Robert Mood, said on Wednesday he was “deeply disturbed” by the killing of 13 people in eastern Deir Ezzor, calling it an “appalling and inexcusable act.”

“Thirteen bodies were discovered last night (Tuesday) in the area of Assukar, 50 km (31 miles) east of Deir Ezzor. All the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs and some appear to have been shot in the head from a short distance,” Mood said in a statement.

International envoy Kofi Annan has urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to act now to end 15 months of bloodshed, warning the country has reached a “tipping point” as Western nations ordered out its top diplomats.

Another day of deadly violence on Tuesday was the bloody backdrop to Annan’s last-gasp efforts to salvage his peace plan, with 98 people killed, most of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, AFP reported.

The daily toll, from the British-based monitoring group, included 61 civilians, 28 government troops and nine rebel fighters, as the country slipped further towards civil war.

We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives

Victoria Nuland, U.S. State Department

Coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats

On the diplomatic front, the apparently coordinated expulsion orders issued by the European Union, the United States and other governments including Australia, Canada and Switzerland -- were in response to the earlier killing of at least 108 people, nearly half of them children, during an assault by pro-government forces last week.

Washington said it hoped the outcry over the deaths near the central town of Houla on Friday and Saturday would draw a change of heart from Damascus ally Moscow, which has previously blocked tougher UN action against Assad's regime.

“We are at a tipping point.Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today,” Annan said after his talks with the Syrian leader in the capital, aimed at rescuing his troubled peace blueprint that was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12 that has never taken hold.

We are at a tipping point.Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today

International envoy Kofi Annan

“I appealed to him for bold steps now -- not tomorrow, now -- to create momentum for the implementation of the plan.”

Annan flew into Syria on Monday, hours after the U.N. Security Council adopted a statement condemning heavy shelling of residential areas by government forces during the killings in Houla.

The Syrian authorities have repeatedly insisted that the lion’s share of the blame for the deaths lies with armed rebels, a position Assad restated in his talks with Annan.

“The success of the Annan plan depends on the end of terrorist acts and those who support them and the smuggling of weapons,” Assad was quoted as saying.

But U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous pointed the finger towards a militia loyal to Assad.

“There is strong suspicion that the Shabiha were involved in this tragedy in Houla,” Ladsous told reporters at the U.N. headquarters.

He added that the number of victims from an artillery barrage “"points to responsibility of the government” as only Assad’s forces have tanks and large-caliber field guns.

Washington joined an array of Western governments in ordering out Syria’s few remaining senior diplomats in protest at the killings.

“We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, informing charge d’affaires Zuheir Jabbour that he had 72 hours to leave the country.

Possible military intervention

French President Francois Hollande said Paris would host a new meeting in July of the Friends of Syria group formed by Damascus’ Arab and Western critics.

He said he did not rule out military intervention, provided it were approved by the U.N. Security Council.

“An armed intervention is not excluded on the condition that it is carried out with respect to international law, meaning after deliberation by the United Nations Security Council,” he said in a television interview.

Australia said Wednesday it was open to discussions about military intervention in Syria, but warned of significant challenges getting it off the ground.

“But you would need unanimity in the Security Council for that to take place, and you’ve got to take account of the criticisms of China and Russia -- as is their right -- of the way intervention was managed in Libya,” Foreign Minister Bob Carr told reporters.

He said arming the Syrian opposition involved real difficulties and Assad’s government “will interpret this as a license to slaughter even more vigorously than they've been doing their political opponents.”

An armed intervention is not excluded on the condition that it is carried out with respect to international law, meaning after deliberation by the United Nations Security Council

French President Francois Hollande

“Turning point” in Russia’s stance

Russia, which has twice used its veto powers at the Security Council to block tougher action against Assad’s regime, called for an “objective and impartial” U.N.-led probe into the killings.

The United States said it hoped the results of the investigation would mark a “turning point” in Russia’s stance towards its longtime ally.

Washington welcomes the fact “that the Russians are willing to have a full investigation because we think it's undisputable what that investigation is going to show,” the State Department spokeswoman said.

“It’s going to show that these were regime-sponsored thugs who went into villages, went into homes and killed children at point blank-range and their parents,” Nuland said.

While the U.S. electorate is primarily focused on the economy, Romney, President Barack Obama’s expected rival in the November U.S. presidential election, has sought to use the unresolved Syrian crisis to paint Obama as weak on foreign policy.

Romney issued a statement Tuesday criticizing what he said was the administration’s “policy of paralysis” on Syria, Reuters reported.

“We should increase pressure on Russia to cease selling arms to the Syrian government and to end its obstruction at the United Nations. And we should work with partners to arm the opposition so they can defend themselves,” he said.

Washington has already imposed tough sanctions on Damascus, but has been struggling to craft a more muscular international response to the crisis amid opposition from Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

The opposition Syrian National Council welcomed the expulsion of diplomats but called on Western governments to go further and push for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.

More than 13,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since the uprising against Assad’s regime erupted in March last year, according to the Britain-based watchdog.