At least 70 killed in Syria as forces pound cities; Russia readies marines


Syrian forces pounded Homs on Monday as they pressed their campaign against rebel strongholds in the city and as at least 70 people were reported killed across the strife-torn country, a watchdog said.

Monday’s casualties come a day after 67 people were killed nationwide, including 15 in Homs province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Activists said artillery had targeted Douma, a town 15 km (9.3 miles) outside the capital Damascus. The town has for weeks been under the partial control of rebels who have joined the 15-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

“We can’t even accurately count the dead because we have so many injured people to treat, there’s no time to think about anything else,” an activist in Douma who called himself Ziad told Reuters.

“The army attacks all the time. They have tanks, missiles, mortars, and artillery. Even helicopters have fired on us. People can’t escape because the army is surrounding the town.”

“The army has escalated its operations in Douma in recent days,” anti-regime activist Mohammad Doumani told AFP via Skype. “Regime forces have destroyed homes, farms and many mosques.”

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), grouping opposition activists on the ground, said Qoudsaya was shelled heavily, and that snipers were firing at anything that moved.

Fares Mohamed, an LCC member in Zabadani northwest of Damascus, told AFP by email that Syrian forces had “imposed a suffocating blockade” around Qoudsaya and a nearby town.

He said the shelling began after an anti-regime demonstration in Qoudsaya. Mohamed said “huge military reinforcements” had arrived and that the wounded could not be treated because the shelling and sniper fire was so intense.

Another civilian was killed in Tafas as regime forces stormed the town.

And in central Hama province, two young sisters were killed when Qalaa al-Madiq was shelled before dawn, the Observatory said, adding that another civilian was shot dead at a regime checkpoint.

In the northern province of Aleppo, unidentified gunmen killed a woman, it said.

Regime forces backed by aircraft also pounded for more than seven hours overnight a region known as the Kurdish Mountain in the northwest province of Latakia, forcing many residents to flee, the watchdog said.

Two civilians were also shot dead in the coastal province.

In the northwestern province of Idlib two civilians were killed, the Observatory said.

Ten regime troops were also killed in clashes overnight and on Monday, the watchdog said.

The British-based Observatory claims violence in Syria has killed more than 14,400 people since the uprising began in mid-March 2011.

In a sign it fears Syria’s conflict could escalate further, an unnamed Russian naval source said Moscow was preparing to send marines to Syria in the event it needed to protect personnel and remove equipment from its naval facility in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartous, according to the Interfax news agency.

Russia is one of the Syrian government’s staunchest backers and supports Assad’s argument that foreign-backed terrorists are behind the unrest. Moscow has repeatedly urged Western and Arab countries, who mostly back the rebels, to rein in their support in order to stem the violence.
International outrage over Syria has grown in recent weeks after two reported massacres of nearly two hundred civilians, most of them from the Sunni Muslim majority population that has led the revolt. Assad comes from Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that has mostly backed the president.

Heavier fighting and apparent sectarian killings have led many, including the head of U.N. peacekeeping forces, to brand the violence a civil war.

The international community’s efforts to halt the violence are deadlocked because Russia and China, which both wield vetoes in the Security Council, have blocked tougher action against Assad. They say the solution should be through political dialogue, an approach most of the Syrian opposition rejects.

Western powers have been pushing for stronger measures to be taken against Assad, whose forces have not only used artillery in recent weeks, but helicopter gunships against rebels in civilian areas.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that the violence in Syria must stop but gave no sign of agreeing on how to do it even as Syrian security forces pounded opposition areas across the country.

Trapped in Homs

The head of the United Nations observation mission, General Robert Mood, is scheduled on Tuesday to brief the U.N. Security Council in New York on the violence in Syria.

The mission recently halted its operations due to security concerns, and Mood said on Sunday he was worried about civilians trapped in central Homs.

“In Homs attempts to extract civilians form the line of fire over the past week have been unsuccessful,” he said in a statement. “This requires willingness on both sides (of the conflict) to respect and protect the human life of the Syrian people.”

Residents in Homs, the bloody epicenter of the revolt against Assad, said their city has been pummeled daily by mortar and rocket fire since early June.

“It’s getting worse since the U.N. observers suspended their mission,” wrote Alaa, who said he was a Homs resident but would only give his first name.

“There are tanks shooting now and most stores are closed. The streets are blocked by security barriers and cement blocks.”

Bernard Valero, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry, said the “relentless repression of the regime, and in particular in the city of Homs” meant it was more necessary than ever for the United Nations to enforce Kofi Annan’s failing peace plan.

France has called on the United Nations to invoke Chapter VII ─ which can authorize the use of force ─ to impose the plan brokered by international mediator Annan, including a widely ignored April 12 ceasefire agreement.

U.N. monitors say violence has been escalating rapidly in Syria, where peaceful protests were overtaken by an armed insurgency several months ago in response to Assad's crackdown on dissent.

In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the government’s use of heavy arms and shelling in populated areas could amount to war crimes, and called on the international community to act.

“I urge the international community to overcome its divisions and work to end the violence and human rights violations to which the people of Syria have been subjected,” she said.