Fears that Assad regime is preparing ground assault on rebel stronghold ahead of referendum
Syria’s military sent tanks and other reinforcements toward Homs on Monday for a possible offensive to break the opposition’s grip there as the Red Cross tried to broker a ceasefire to send emergency aid to areas affected by fighting.
The mobilisation around the resistance stronghold in central Syria was an ominous sign that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was preparing a ground assault after weeks of shelling the district of Baba Amr, which the opposition has dubbed “Syria’s Misrata” after the Libyan city where rebels fought off a government siege.
Syrian-based activist Mustafa Osso told the Associated Press that Assad’s military should be ready to face stiff battles as residents plan to fight until “the last person”. He said Homs was facing “savage shelling that does not differentiate between military or civilians targets”.
“The human loss is going to be huge if they retake Baba Amr,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said at least eight people were killed by shelling in parts of Homs on Monday.
Amateur videos posted online showed what activists said were shells falling on Baba Amr with black smoke billowing from residential areas. Phone lines and internet connections have been cut to the city, making it difficult to get firsthand accounts from residents.
In Geneva, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the group had been in talks with Syrian authorities and opposition groups to negotiate a ceasefire in some of the most violence-torn areas.
“We are currently discussing several possibilities with all those concerned, and it includes a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas,” the spokeswoman, Carla Haddad, said.
The talks weren’t aimed at resolving any political differences after more than 11 months of fighting, she said. “The idea is to be able to facilitate swift access to people in need.”.
Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent and the defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north as well as parts of Homs province, which is Syria’s largest, stretching from the border with Lebanon in the west to Iraq and Jordan in the east. The country appears to be moving towards a civil war.
Activists believe Assad may be trying to subdue Homs before a referendum on a new constitution this Sunday. The charter would allow a bigger role for political opposition to challenge Assad’s Ba’ath party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup.
But the leaders of the uprising have dismissed the referendum as an attempt at superficial reforms that do nothing to break the regime’s hold on power.
“We have called for a boycott of the referendum which cannot be held while parts of Syria are a war zone,” said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council.
Assad still counts on support from Iran and other allies, such as Russia, which fears losing its main Arab partner. But his government is facing escalating pressure and isolation from western and Arab states.
In Kabul, two senior members of the US senate armed services committee called for international co-operation to help supply rebels with weapons and other aid. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, however, stopped short of endorsing direct US military involvement.
“The United States doesn’t have to directly ship weapons to the opposition, but there are a whole lot of things that can be done” through groups such as the Arab League, McCain told reporters on Sunday.
Graham said it was shameful for the US not to have a prominent role in helping the rebel forces.
Breaking Syria’s ties to Iran “could be as beneficial to our efforts to contain a nuclear-armed Iran as sanctions”, he said. “If the Syrian regime is replaced with another form of government that doesn’t tie its future to the Iranians, the world is a better place.”
The UN last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 had been killed in 2011. But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. The group Local Co-ordination Committees says more than 7,300 have been killed since March last year. There is no way to independently verify the numbers, however, as Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organisations.
The Observatory said that troops conducted raids on Monday in the southern village of Harrah, where at least nine people were detained.
In the western Hama province, troops backed by armoured personnel carriers and military buses stormed several villages, conducting raids and arrests. A 32-year-old man was killed by gunfire from a security checkpoint in the area, activists said.
On Sunday, activists said at least 18 people were killed in Syria, including a senior state prosecutor and a judge who were shot dead by gunmen in the north-western province of Idlib.
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