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‘Besieged’ Homs Endures Tank Assault

Correspondents* - IPS/Al Jazeera

DOHA, Qatar, Feb 8 2012 (IPS) - The Syrian military is reportedly moving deeper into residential areas in the city of Homs, a day after the Russian foreign minister said President Bashar al-Assad was “fully committed” to ending the bloodshed.

Activists said the army was firing rockets and mortar rounds to subdue opposition districts on Wednesday, as tanks entered the Inshaat neighbourhood and moved closer to Bab Amr.

An activist in Bab Amr told Al Jazeera that the neighbourhood had been under fire for several days.

The army is “shelling us, using rockets, using mortars, using Russian tanks,” he said. “Tanks are trying to break into the neighbourhood of Bab Amr.”

Activist Hadi al-Abdallah said that at least 43 people were killed overnight in the central city, and other activists reported even higher death tolls.

“Some areas are completely sieged. There is no internet, no landlines or mobile lines,” Al-Abdallah said.

He said there had been no retaliation by the armed opposition because the government forces were shelling from positions several kilometres away.

Mohammad Hassan, another activist, said bombardment had intensified in the early morning, targeting Bab Amr, al-Bayada, Khalidiyeh and Wadi al-Arab, all which have revolted against Assad.

“Mortar and rocket fire has subsided, but heavy machineguns and anti- aircraft guns are still strong,” he said. “Tanks are in main thoroughfares in the city and appear poised to push deep into residential areas.”

‘Terrorist groups’

State media reported that “armed terrorist groups” had attacked police roadblocks in Homs and fired mortar bombs at the city, with three falling on the Homs oil refinery.

“Armed terrorist groups shelled the refinery in Homs, setting two fuel depots on fire,” Syrian television said.

U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay called for urgent international action to protect civilians in Syria.

“I am appalled by the Syrian government’s wilful assault on Homs, and its use of artillery and other heavy weaponry in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the city,” a statement from Pillay said.

“The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have fuelled the Syrian government’s readiness to massacre its own people in an effort to crush dissent.”

Meanwhile, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, returned to Moscow after holding talks with Assad in Damascus a day earlier.

Lavrov said Syrians themselves should decide the fate of their leader.

“Any outcome of national dialogue should become the result of agreement between the Syrians themselves and should be acceptable to all the Syrians,” he said in Moscow.

Lavrov blamed both the Damascus leadership and opposition forces for instigating the violence that activists say has killed more than 7,000 people since March.

He told reporters that “on both sides there are people that aim at an armed confrontation, not a dialogue”.

Assad had told him that Syria was determined to hold a national dialogue with the opposition and independent figures, saying his government was “ready to co-operate with any effort that boosts stability in Syria”, according to SANA.

Lavrov said the president had “delegated the responsibility of holding such a dialogue to Vice-President (Farouk) al-Sharaa.”

Failed diplomacy

Repeated efforts by the Arab League and Russia to broker talks have been rejected by the Syrian opposition, which refuses any negotiations while the crackdown continues.

Russia – which wields unique leverage as a major arms supplier with longstanding political ties to Damascus, and a naval facility on its coast – vetoed a U.N. Security Council on Syria along with China last week.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was due to discuss the situation in Syria in a phone call with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev later on Wednesday, according to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Walid al-Bunni, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said Lavrov had brought no new initiative and that “so- called reforms” promised by Assad were not enough.

“The crimes that have been committed have left no room for Bashar al- Assad to remain ruler of Syria,” he told Reuters news agency.

In the latest diplomatic developments, Gulf Arab states joined the U.S. and several European countries in withdrawing their ambassadors from Damascus on Tuesday.

Announcing the decision to withdraw the ambassadors “immediately”, the Gulf Co-operation Council said “the rising tide of killing and violence in Syria is showing no mercy towards women, children or the elderly.”

The council simultaneously requested all Syrian ambassadors to leave its member states with immediate effect.

*Published under an agreement with Al-Jazeera.

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